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Attend the Tale: The Lurid Literary History of Sweeney Todd

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Mention the name Sweeney Todd today and most modern horror fans’ minds will turn to Stephen Sondheim’s sensational stage–and later screen–musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

It’s not difficult to understand why. Sondheim’s version of the story may be the most famous of the last 175 years, and has been performed by some of the most talented theater companies around the world long before it ever came to life on the big screen under the direction of Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter.

Mr. Todd’s history goes back much farther than the 1979 Broadway premiere of Sondheim’s musical, however. In fact, it began in literary form in 1846 in a penny dreadful serial titled “The String of Pearls: A Domestic Romance.”

“The String of Pearls” Synopsis

That original story painted Sweeney Todd as an unmitigated villain who killed his victims by pulling a lever on his barber chair that sent them crashing down a chute into the basement where, hopefully, their necks would break. When he wasn’t so lucky, he would descend the stairs and slit their throats with his razor.

Once dispatched, he would cart the bodies by way of an underground tunnel to Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pie shop where she’d bake them up to sell to the public.

Things go awry for Mr. Todd after a sailor named Thornhill, last seen entering the shop, goes missing. Thornhill had been meant to deliver a string of pearls to a woman named Johanna. It was a gift from, Mark, a man she loved who was presumed lost at sea.

Suspicious of Todd’s involvement in Thornhill’s disappearance, Johanna dresses up like a boy and goes to work for his shop after his former assistant Tobias Ragg is locked away in an asylum upon accusing the barber of being a murderer.

Eventually, Todd is exposed as the villain he is when massive piles of body parts are discovered under the nearby church that is also connected to the barber’s shop by underground tunnels. Furthermore, it is discovered that Johanna’s long lost Mark has been imprisoned for ages by Mr. Todd and forced to cook the meat pies for Mrs. Lovett’s shop.

Mark manages to escape and enters the pie shop, announcing to the customers that they are actually eating people. I’ve often wondered if Soylent Green doesn’t owe just a little bit of it’s success to old Sweeney.

In the fallout that comes after his exposure, Todd poisons Mrs. Lovett and is eventually captured and hanged for his crimes.

Adaptations

Nope, we’re not even close to Mr. Sondheim yet!

The tale of Sweeney Todd and “The String of Pearls” was so popular that it was adapted for the stage before the original story’s ending was even revealed in serial form, and soon everyone was doing their own version of the tale from the grand guignol theaters of  Europe to America and back to London for newer versions making Sweeney Todd a household name in Victorian England.

Sweeney Todd

And then, in 1970, playwright Christopher Bond took the tale and gave it his own spin.

In Bond’s version of the tale, Sweeney Todd became a slightly more sympathetic character. He wasn’t a killer from the start. Instead, he was a barber whose beautiful wife became the object of obsession for an evil judge who raped the woman and then had Todd transported to Australia on trumped up charges.

Upon his return to London, he begins his bid for revenge, falling in with Mrs. Lovett and hatching a plot to boost her pie sales while seeking an end to the evil judge’s life.

It was in 1973 that Stephen Sondheim saw a production of Bond’s play. It planted the seeds for his own adaptation which has become, by far, the most well-known version of the tale in the last four decades.

Singing Sweeney Todd

Sondheim took the material to his long-time collaborator Harold Prince and though the director was reticent at first, he was soon won over by Sondheim’s scoring ideas merged with his own ideas of making a statement about life in the Industrial Revolution–Prince’s sets would eventually come to look and feel like an old iron foundry with movable set pieces that actors could turn throughout to set different scenes.

Though it took a bit of convincing on his part, Sondheim found his leading lady for the comically villainous Mrs. Lovett in Angela Lansbury and for the titular role, he brought in actor Len Cariou.

Further, Sondheim turned the smaller roles and extras in the chorus into an actual Greek Chorus who would come onto the stage en masse to narrate certain passages through song, lending an almost operatic feel to the show.

On opening night, audiences were in shock at the tale of bloodshed, cannibalism, and revenge, and though reception by critics was somewhat lukewarm, it would go on to run for 557 performances on Broadway before it set out on tour with Lansbury still attached to the role of Lovett.

Cariou was replaced by George Hearn for the tour, and in the final leg of Sweeney Todd on the road, the production was filmed for broadcast on television. You can still purchase that production on DVD, and I cannot tell you how much I recommend it.

 

Since its initial run at the Uris Theater in New York, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been performed all over the world and has seen numerous revivals on Broadway and in London’s West End.

In my opinion, Sweeney Todd contains some of the composer and lyricist’s best work. The darkly hilarious “A Little Priest” and “By the Sea” perfectly offset soaring ballads and more serious pieces like “Johanna” and “Epiphany.”

Sweeney on Screen

Of course, eventually Hollywood came to call upon Sondheim, and in 2007 Tim Burton’s gritty adaptation of the show hit the silver screen.

Now don’t come after me, but of all the version of this show that I’ve seen, Burton’s is by far the weakest. They simply had to cut too many things in the adaptation and they went with “name” talent over real singing actors. While I appreciate much of what they did in the film version of the story, you’ve not really seen this show until you’ve seen it in its entirety and by actors who are more accomplished vocalists than Depp and Bonham-Carter.

The film version of the musical was hardly the first screen adaptation of the story of Sweeney Todd, however. For that, you have to go all the way back to 1926. Unfortunately the film, which was directed by George Dewhurst and starred G.A. Baughan in the title role, has been lost.

The story was adapted for the screen again in 1928 and again in 1936, this time with George King directing. King’s version was actually chosen as one of the first 200 films to be broadcast on television and was first seen on WNBT Channel 1 out of New York City.

It has since been adapted by the BBC more than once, and has captured audiences each and every time.

But why Sweeney?

So why is it that this story has so captured the imagination of authors, playwrights, and filmmakers? What is it in the tale of Sweeney Todd that draws audiences to it again and again?

Of course, there is the lurid nature of the tale. Murder most foul and the unexpected twist of feeding human flesh to unexpected shop patrons is a sensational idea!

But is that all? It’s certainly part of the reason why I love it, and I’ve often wondered what I would do if I found out that I’d unintentionally taken part in cannibalism. Of course, I’m a bit weird so maybe only I have those thoughts.

While I’m sure academics could and would give you a host of reasons, I think it comes down to basic human nature.

Sweeney Todd could be anybody. He could be your neighborhood barber or even worse your neighbor.

There is both a repulsion and a slight thrill innate in human beings when they find them connected to such circumstances. One only has to read or watch the news after a heinous murderer or serial killer is captured to see it. Friends, neighbors, and acquaintances line up for interviews to talk about how they never would have suspected the killer of doing such terrible things.

Whatever the part of our brain is that drives human to relish that contact with such horrifying circumstances, I would lay money on it being the same part that has kept the story of Sweeney Todd alive.

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Melissa Barrera Says Her ‘Scream’ Contract Never Included a Third Movie

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The Scream franchise has done a major overhaul to its original script for Scream VII after its two main leads departed production. Jenna Ortega who played Tara Carpenter left because she was overly booked and blessed while her co-star Melissa Barrera was fired after making political comments on social media.

But Barrera isn’t regretting any of it. In fact, she is happy where the character arc left off. She played Samantha Carpenter, the latest focus of the Ghostface killer.

Barrera did an exclusive interview with Collider. During their talk, the 33-year-old says she fulfilled her contract and her character Samantha’s arc finished at a good spot, even though it was meant to be a trilogy.

“I feel like the ending of [ Scream VI ] was a very good ending, and so I don’t feel like ‘Ugh, I got left in the middle.’ No, I think people, the fans, were wanting a third movie to continue that arc, and apparently, the plan was a trilogy, even though I was only contracted for two movies.

So, I did my two movies, and I’m fine. I’m good with that. I got two – that’s more than most people get. When you’re on a TV show, and it gets canceled, you can’t harp on things, you gotta move on.

That’s the nature of this industry too, I get excited for the next job, I get excited for the next skin I get to put on. It’s exciting to create a different character. So yeah, I feel good. I did what I set out to do. It was always meant to be two movies for me, ’cause that was my contract, and so everything is perfect.”

The entire production of the original seventh entry has moved on from the Carpenter’s storyline. With a new director and new script, production will resume, including the return of Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox.

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Read Reviews For ‘Abigail’ The Latest From Radio Silence

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The review embargo has lifted for the vampire horror movie Abigail and the reviews are abundantly positive. 

Matt BettinelliOlpin and Tyler Gillett of Radio Silence are getting early praise for their latest horror movie which opens on April 19. Unless you’re Barbie or Oppenheimer the name of the game in Hollywood is about what kind of box office numbers you pull on opening weekend and how much they drop thereafter. Abigail could be this year’s sleeper. 

Radio Silence is no stranger to opening big, their Scream reboot and sequel packed fans into seats on their respective opening dates. The duo are currently working on another reboot, that of 1981’s Kurt Russel cult favorite Escape From New York

Abigail

Now that ticket sales for GodzillaxKong, Dune 2, and Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire have gathered patina, Abigail could knock A24’s current powerhouse Civil War from the top spot, especially if ticket buyers base their purchase off reviews. If it is successful, it could be temporary, since Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s action comedy The Fall Guy opens on May 3, just two weeks later.

We have gathered pull quotes (good & bad) from some genre critics on Rotten Tomatoes (score for Abigail currently sits at 85%) to give you an indicator of how they are skewing ahead of its release this weekend. First, the good:

“Abigail is a fun, bloody ride. It also has the most lovable ensemble of morally grey characters this year. The film introduces a new favorite monster into the genre and gives her room to take the biggest swings possible. I lived!” — Sharai Bohannon: A Nightmare On Fierce Street Podcast

“The standout is Weir, commanding the screen despite her small stature and effortlessly switching from apparently helpless, terrified child to savage predator with a mordant sense of humor.” — Michael Gingold: Rue Morgue Magazine

“‘Abigail’ sets the bar as the most fun you can have with a horror movie of the year. In other words, “Abigail” is horror on pointe.” — BJ Colangelo: Slashfilm

“In what may become one of the greatest vampire movies of all time, Abigail provides an extremely bloody, fun, humorous & fresh take on the subgenre.” — Jordan Williams: Screen Rant

“Radio Silence have proven themselves as one of the most exciting, and crucially, fun, voices in the horror genre and Abigail takes this to the next level.” — Rosie Fletcher: Den of Geek

Now, the not-so-good:

“It’s not badly made, just uninspired and played out.” — Simon Abrams: RogerEbert.com

A ‘Ready or Not’ redux running on half the steam, this one-location misfire has plenty of parts that work but its namesake isn’t among them.” –Alison Foreman: indieWire

Let us know if you are planning to see Abigail. If or when you do, give us your hot take in the comments.

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Ernie Hudson To Star In ‘Oswald: Down The Rabbit Hole’

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Ernie Hudson

This is some exciting news! Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters 1984, The Crow 1994) is set to star in the upcoming horror film titled Oswald: Down The Rabbit Hole. Hudson is set to play the character Oswald Jebediah Coleman who is a brilliant animator that is locked away in a terrifying magical prison. No release date has been announced yet. Check out the announcement trailer and more about the film below.

ANNOUNCEMENT TRAILER FOR OSWALD: DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

The film follows the story of “Art and some of his closest friends as they help track down his long-lost family lineage. When they find and explore his Great-Grandpa Oswald’s abandoned home, they encounter a magical TV that teleports them to a place lost in time, shrouded by dark Hollywood Magic. The group finds that they are not alone when they discover Oswald’s come-to-life cartoon Rabbit, a dark entity that decides their souls are it’s for the taking. Art and his friends must work together to escape their magical prison before the Rabbit gets to them first.”

First Look Image at Oswald: Down the Rabbit Hole

Ernie Hudson stated that “I am excited to work with everyone on this production. It’s an incredibly creative and smart project.”

Director Stewart also added “I had a very specific vision for Oswald’s character and knew I wanted Ernie for this role from the start, as I’ve always admired iconic cinematic legacy. Ernie is going to bring Oswald’s unique and vengeful spirit to life in the best way possible.”

First Look Image at Oswald: Down the Rabbit Hole

Lilton Stewart III and Lucinda Bruce are teaming up to write and direct the film. It stars actors Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters 1984, The Crow 1994), Topher Hall (Single Drunk Female 2022), and Yasha Rayzberg (A Rainbow in the Dark 2021). Mana Animation Studio is helping produce the animation, Tandem Post House for post-production, and VFX supervisor Bob Homami is also helping. The budget for the film currently sits at $4.5M.

Official Teaser Poster for Oswald: Down the Rabbit Hole

This is one of many classic childhood stories that are being turned into horror films. This list includes Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey 2, Bambi: The Reckoning, Mickey’s Mouse Trap, The Return of Steamboat Willie, and many more. Are you more interested in the film now that Ernie Hudson is attached to star in it? Let us know in the comments below.

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