Monday, November 25, 2013

Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970): The beginning of the reclaiming of Sweeney Todd

Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970)
dir: Andy Milligan

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is actually an older story than most realize. Sweeney first appeared in a "penny dreadful" serial from 1846-1847 titled The String of Pearls. The famous operetta version by Stephen Sondheim, which revamped the story from being a horror story with a dastardly villain into a revenge story about an anti-hero, wouldn't make its appearance until 1979.

But, in 1970, Andy Milligan created Bloodthirsty Butchers, an exploitation version out of the sordid and cruel little tale of chopping up people and serving them as meals. Of course, Milligan's version is more Milligan than it is the penny dreadful. Milligan's version has enough sex and violence to retain the R-rating, but it ultimately focuses more on the sex and less on the pure and utter violence of the story. What sex, you may ask?

Well, Milligan's sordid London underworld is chock full of sleazy people who are fucking everybody they want. Sweeney Todd is screwing every woman on the block, several of the women are already married and cheating on their husbands, their husbands, in turn, seem to be cheating with other women, and it becomes angry hornet's nest of soapy sexual connections with hardly a moral or narrative center to the drama. Everybody is screaming at each other how one person disappoints the other, or how one girl isn't really putting out like she used to. A stage girl complains about her costumes. Nobody is happy.

With Bloodthirsty Butchers, The Other Films comes to the world of Andy Milligan. Milligan is an underground almost untalented filmmaker who had no idea on how to make a movie, but every idea on how shitty people are. He made movies for $10-12k each, on equipment nobody should have been working on, with actors who had little time to rehearse, making his own costumes, doing everything on the fly, and generally making crude movies that had no real mark on the world.

But, his movies do have a certain something that will appeal to those who can get past the amateur filmmaking, and cheap-as-fuck aesthetic. The screenplays are all originally undeniably Milligan. They have the hallmarks of Sartre's old saying, "Hell is other people." Everybody is out for themselves, and Milligan is too. He doesn't pass judgement on anybody so much as he's putting it out there that everybody is shit, and he's right there with them.

Milligan is a true misanthrope, and Bloodthirsty Butchers puts it on full display. Sweeney Todd is the perfect vehicle for it too. It's a sordid tale where there are no heroes, nor any real villains. The String of Pearls was never the Sondheim version, where Sweeney Todd is back to get revenge and rescue his daughter from a corrupt judge. Sweeney Todd started his life as a murderer with Mrs Lovett as his accomplice. With the only close to humane people being Johanna, who was the girlfriend to a victim of Sweeney's, and her boyfriend, Milligan is free to fill in the blanks with deviant sexuality, cheating, and general assholery.

Which makes Bloodthirsty Butchers even more compelling than what it should be. As it is pre-Sondheim, this is a far different Sweeney than most people now are used to. The story had been quiet in the adaptation realm for years, when Milligan unearthed it to re-adapt it. Bloodthirsty Butchers is also darkly sardonic and cruel, but never a comedy. It's a horror of the soul, as most of Milligan's scuzzy underworld movies are. There are no real heroes in Milligan's works. And, there is no real great ending in his movies. Which is why Bloodthirsty Butchers, bringing you a familiar story told as a period piece is a great introduction to the work of Andy Milligan.

No comments:

Post a Comment