“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit, and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit and the vermin of the world inhabit it…but not for long.”
Tim Burton is an acclaimed director, known for his dark and eccentric style and classic gothic atmosphere. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Sleepy Hollow” are two distinct examples of Tim Burton’s films which evidently showcase his particular style. Sweeney Todd revolves around the titular barber’s obsessive pursuit of revenge against Turpin, a malicious and envious judge who convicted and exiled him years before, essentially sabotaging his past life as Benjamin Barker. After changing his name to the alias ‘Sweeney Todd’, with the help of his admirer Mrs Lovett, he devises a diabolical plan in which he reopens his barber shop where he brutally murders his clients, waiting for the day when Turpin unknowingly rests on his trap and meets a gruesome end. Sweeney is able to dispose of the deceased through cooperation with Lovett’s revolting bakery business of selling putrid pies processed from the remains of Sweeney’s many victims. ‘Sleepy Hollow’ follows Constable Ichabod Crane and his investigation of a series of murders committed by the mysterious and supernatural ‘Headless Horseman’ in the gloomy and isolated village of Sleepy Hollow. Crane, along with the help of love interest Katrina and sidekick Masbath slowly uncover the mystery behind the legend of Sleepy Hollow and how to banish the barbaric being back to hell. Through Burton’s unique and elaborate use of film techniques; music, colour and symbol, both films effectively establish the common conventions of the gothic genre: foreshadowing, tone, mood and the gothic protagonist.

Very early in Sweeney Todd, music is used by Burton as a significant technique in expressing the exaggerated emotions of characters, building tension and sustaining a macabre mood. Most notably, music is used to foreshadow an upcoming negative event and as a result, developing a sense of dread in the audience. Numerous scenes employ music as a foreshadowing device, one of which stands out as an effective example to me. Seemingly about to deliver the final blow to Turbin, Sweeney’s mannerisms toy with the audience’s emotions, music building suspense and falsely foreshadowing Turbin’s death. First starting off with a peaceful melody involving a harp, the music initially complements the bouncy dialogue and whistling exchanged between the two, thus confusing the audience as it contrasts with what our sight perceives. Suddenly the suspense begins to build, a series of abrupt low notes heavily pounding each moment Sweeney’s silver razor draws close to Turbin’s neck. Music now contrasts with the cheerful and optimistic dialogue, Sweeney feeling complete as his revenge fantasy is about to be fulfilled. In turn, the audience becomes tense and on the edge of their seats, in preparation of Turbin’s grisly end, despite knowing this conflict likely won’t be resolved so early in the film. Another particular scene is whilst Sweeney is informing Antony of when his life was snatched away from him. Foreboding music and a sorrowful past tense dialogue indicate to the audience that though this was a more joyful time for Sweeney, this life as Benjamin Barker will soon be taken away from him. Burton chooses the slow building and sinister undertones of the music to juxtapose with the overly colourful saturation of the flashback, to unsettle the audience, as this combination feels very off-putting.

Similar to Sweeney Todd, the mysterious and foreboding music accompanies the dark atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow to induce the same unsettling feeling in the audience. Eery and progressively more intense music is attentively used by Burton in Crane’s first encounter with the Horseman on the bridge. Beginning as faint and foreboding, the music consists primarily of a violin, but this slowly builds up to a loud shrill note once the Horseman is revealed. As danger appears, the music grows very intense and fast-paced, an entire orchestra being utilised whilst the Horsman chases Crane. Another scene that demonstrates this foreboding tone to the film’s music is when Crane and his friends approach ‘The Tree of the Dead’. Again, the music is very sinister. Whilst we see the nervous reactions of the trio, the deep undertone of the trombone is heard, unnerving the audience. As the tree is dramatically revealed to the audience, a loud gong is heard, indicating that this tree holds some kind of power and importance in the film. Afterwards, the music dies down, becoming more mysterious and discrete as they interact with the tree. Music is indicative that they are in a dangerous and desolate place manipulating how the audience perceives the unusually shaped tree.

Monochromatic colours such as black, white and grey are primarily used by Burton in Sweeney Todd, only particular flashback and fantasy scenes having a bright and cheerful colour palette. Heavily exaggerating the miserable and bleak setting in which Sweeney inhabits is the billowing black cloud. Their dark colour coats the dull skies to cast their shadow over London, acting as an important feature of the film’s unpleasant and tragic atmosphere. Inside Sweeney’s barber shop, this colour is sustained, the apartment being discovered in a devastated condition. Immense chunks of wallpaper are torn, exposing the decaying black material beneath, indicating that his past life as Benjamin Barker has been left to rot. Even after renovating the apartment into a barbershop, the leaden colour remains and furniture is still in a cracked and damaged condition. This indicates to the audience that he cannot move past the loss of his life as Benjamin Barker and is forced to live in the decaying remains of his past. Another key colour used by Burton is vivid blood red, which is a stand out motif of Sweeney Todd, due to the excessive and overly violent nature of the blood whilst Sweeney slits the throats of his many victims. Prominently utilised in the opening sequence of the film is this blood motif, blood moving in a very animated and slow-travelling nature, thus evoking an unsettling sensation in the audience. With assistance from the accompanying music and amplified diegetic sound, the blood’s realistic and displeasing colour indicates strong connotations of danger, pain and death in the audience, foreshadowing the gore to come.

Similar to Sweeney Todd, monochromatic colours such as grey and black heavily dominate the screen, to emphasize the macabre and tragic nature of Sleepy Hollow. This monochromatic colour palette is used by Burton to help the audience become immersed in the dark environment and feel the same gloominess experienced by the villagers of Sleepy Hollow. Several scenes such as the vibrantly coloured dream sequences and the film’s resolution contrast with the saturation of bleak colours seen in the rest of the film. During Crane and Masbath’s search for the Horseman in the dim and shadowy Western Woods, this contrast is established. Startled, Crane stiffens when he sees a white blurry figure of a galloping horse. Prepared for a deadly battle, the audience tenses with him, up until the figure comes closer and it is revealed as Katrina. The audience feels relaxed, this feeling due to Katrina’s yellow dress and bright white cloak and horse emitting an intense warming glow, brighter than anything else seen in the film. Though the audience is yet to feel a trust in Katrina, Burton’s choice of white colour for her costume evokes a strong emotional connotation in the audience that she is an angelic, pure and lovely character who brings hope and loving affection to Crane in dire times.

Frequently in Sweeney Todd, symbols of being trapped in a dark or inescapable place are displayed through the use of both bars and a bird in a cage. Barred windows are a key symbol that occurs, specifically the overcasting gridded window pane within Sweeney’s apartment. Often seen peering out of the blurry and barred window into the surrounding world in an envious and vengeful manner, Sweeney observes others whilst trapped by his need to enact vengeance upon the human race. The window is blurry, symbolising his distorted view of society and the separation between himself and others, the bars reinforcing this idea of him being imprisoned by his lust for murder and retaliation. The scene in which Johanna chirpily sings whilst admiring the bird in the cage uses symbolism to deliberately compare her and this trapped bird. Multiple factors indicate to the audience that Johanna is just as trapped as the bird she observes. One factor is her window being similarly shaped as the bird’s cage door, while another is her voice being high and birdlike. However, her dialogue most emphasises this symbol, her asking the bird how it’s able to sing despite being trapped in a cage sung as if she is talking about herself and how she remains within her jail cell of a room whilst the outside world beckons her to escape. Burton purposely chooses the windows of both Johanna and Sweeney’s to be blurry, to indicate to the audience that their view of the outside world is distorted and hard to make sense of.

In Sleepy Hollow, the same prominent symbols of being trapped are presented. Frequently a symbol of a cardinal and a cage on separate sides of a spinning toy is used. Though the characters feel trapped in the village by the Horseman, the symbol represents that they can still be free once they see through this illusion and realise that they can escape this cage. This optical illusion – called a thaumatrope- was given to Crane by his mother, and he has since used it to motivate himself and Katrina to see through this illusion of feeling trapped. Truth tells that they are endangered by the Horseman and cannot escape, however, this truth may not appear as it is and Crane uses his belief in this idea to empower him to solve the mystery and free the villagers of Sleepy Hollow from the cage that traps them. Burton enforces the idea to the audience that it is the trapped who’ve caged themselves and that with strength, one can fly free.

All of the techniques mentioned in this essay are deliberately used by Burton to help incorporate elements of gothic fiction. Burton’s intentions are for both films to be described as more of a feeling as opposed to a verbalisation of what occurs. Foreshadowing is demonstrated through the use of music in both of Burton’s films, and aids in establishing the foreboding feeling commonly associated with the gothic genre. In Gothic literature, foreshadowing is used through language features, this same method applying but instead, verbal techniques are used. To keep the audience feeling discomfort and anxiety for what is to come, the music builds tension in both films, audibly foreshadowing something grim. In the same way, Gothic novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula builds tension through foreshadowing but instead uses literary devices such as symbolism and imagery. Monochromatic colour saturating both films is a deliberate choice by Burton in order to establish the gothic tone and mood. Tone and mood are key conventions of gothic fiction, the viewpoint of the protagonist and overall atmosphere being essential in manipulating the reader’s emotions. Colour indicates the contrast between happiness and utter depression of both the tone and mood. Monochromatic colour dominating both films establishes the gloomy mood, which in turn, instigates apprehension and moments of intense bright colour in flashbacks, dreams or fantasies omitting happiness and. Burton’s colour choice for particular scenes can also act as a ‘mood ring’ for the tone of the protagonist. Whilst Sweeney and Crane are experiencing emotions such as fear, rage, sadness and strong passion, Burton uses monochromatic colour and vivid red to establish the tone of the characters. Scenes which contrast with the monochromatic colour of the rest of the film, having bright yellow and pure white colours, indicate that the tone is more positive and cheerful. Symbols in both films demonstrate that the protagonist is trapped in a certain, this means physically and/or mentally. In Gothic literature, being trapped by revenge, desire or other strong passions and emotions is a reoccurring common attribute of a gothic protagonist, examples of such including Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Gray. Sweeney follows this trend, having an obsessive hunger for revenge which prevents him from freeing himself from the cage which traps him, the symbolism of the barred window indicating this. Only able to solely focus on revenge he becomes consumed by vengeance that he cannot recognise his own wife and daughter, this need to act upon his cold-hearted aggression placing himself in a mental trap. After satisfying this thirst for revenge, he is left realising what he has sacrificed to obtain this goal and decides that the only way to escape this cage is to offer himself to death. Whilst offering his throat to Toby he treats death as a relief to his suffering. Conversely, Crane is trapped by his fear of the supernatural and his childhood traumas as opposed to bitter rage like Sweeney. Crane struggles to escape from thinking logically with passionate devotion towards science and fears what lies beyond human experience and the rational existence. In order to escape this cage, Crane must confront his fears to overcome the violent and bloody assaults of the Horseman.

In summary, I have discussed how director Tim Burton has used three film techniques to implement common conventions of the gothic fiction genre in his films ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘Sleepy Hollow’. Firstly, how Burton utilises music in both films to establish the convention of foreshadowing. Secondly, how Burton applies colour to both films to indicate the convention of tone and mood. Thirdly, how Burton implements the symbols of a bird in the cage and bars to establish the common trait of the gothic protagonist of being mentally trapped. Being unafraid to take theatrical risks when transferring his imaginative ideas onto the screen is something very inspirational about Burton and is what makes him so successful as a director.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Lucas,

    Some of your sentences are very long. Look to edit these so they are not as “twisty” and clumsy.

    Remember that you need to analyse the actions of the director. At the moment you are stating what it happening with only a small amount of analysis.

    Also, address the impact that the techniques have on the audience and their ability to understand the ideas in the film.

  2. Lucas,

    You need to think about your structure- at the moment, it feels like we are jumping from one film technique into the next then going all the way back to the beginning with the next film. This makes your essay feel drawn out.

    When discussing how the features and their connection to gothic fiction, remember to discuss how they combine. You have already discussed what they do independently.

    Develop your analysis of the directors intentions and what impact this has on the audience in places.

    Address the technical errors in your work.

    Mrs. P


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