Tim Burton makes fantasy movies. Stephen Sondheim writes musicals. It is hard to think of two more optimistic genres of popular art, or of two popular artists who have so systematically subverted that optimism. Mr. Sondheim has always gravitated toward the dissonance lurking in hummable tunes, and has threaded his song-and-dance spectaculars with subtexts of anxiety and alienation. Mr. Burton, for his part, dwells most naturally (if somewhat uneasily) in the realms of the gothic and the grotesque, turning comic books and children's tales into scary, nightmarish shadow plays. And so it should not be surprising that "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," Mr. Burton's film adaptation of Mr. Sondheim's musical, is as dark and terrifying as any motion picture in recent memory, not excluding the bloody installments in the "Saw" franchise. Indeed, "Sweeney" is as much a horror film as a musical: It is cruel in its effects and radical in its misanthropy, expressing a breathtakingly, rigorously pessimistic view of human nature. It is also something close to a masterpiece, a work of extreme -- I am tempted to say evil -- genius.
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