Sleepy Hollow (1999)

by P. Nelson Reinsch


Burton's Bag of (Late) Halloween Goodies

When the Burgomaster (played by still great Horror film legend Christopher Lee) sends Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) to Sleepy Hollow, you may suspect that Ichabod is being sent to the land of Hammer Horror, or perhaps the woods of Horror Movies Past. And when Crane arrives in Sleep Hollow it becomes clear that he is director Tim Burton’s proxy, roaming the sets and acting scenes from other Horror films. Few us of get access to the required ‘train sets’ with which to go inside our favorite films. We should be thankful that Burton is one of the few given this opportunity, because, as expected, he gives us laughter and terror coiled together, though not always neatly. Sleepy Hollow is about Horror movies — an occasionally peculiar mix of old fashioned atmosphere and modern day gore effects.

The Horror genre only becomes more self-reflexive the older it gets and Burton uses this fact to assist his endeavor. Audiences admire the same movies he does, and like directors, audiences have a greater sense of genre each year. A partial list of references will suggest part of what this film is about. The horse drawn carriage at the beginning of the film evokes the original Nosferatu. Ichabod’s flashbacks of his childhood bed stuffed into a dark corner recall the classic Night of the Hunter. A bleached white church aisle centered on screen and blood which seems to fill the photographed space effectively recalls the centered framing and elevator of blood in Kubrick’s The Shining. The exploding windmill is great trailer fodder and brings the grandfather of American Horror Frankenstein into the conversation. Burton even quotes himself when a witch’s eyes and tongue bug out like Large Marge’s did in Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure (a Horror film of sorts).

cover art

Sleepy Hollow

Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Christopher Lee

US theatrical: 17 Nov 1999 (General release)

This Burton film is a Classical Horror film. No Sixth Sense-style twist endings here or Blair Witch-style claims of reality. In this Classical Horror film, the Evil Force exacts revenge and will kill innocents if they happen to get in the way. The Forces of Good triumph over Evil shortly after the Guilty have been punished. All this takes place in a world where the filmmakers make their own science. Yet in one respect, the Horseman seems vaguely modern. At times he functions as the predecessor of Jason Voorhees and Michael Meyers, those ghouls who kept being shot and stabbed throughout the 80s (and into the 90s) only to rise up and kill more kids in the Friday the 13th and Halloween films. Like them, he is down but never out. The turn of a character’s head is his cue to sit up and dust himself off. The Horseman is the incarnation of unstoppable vengeance, played headless, in part, by Darth Maul (Ray Park) and with head by Christopher Walken. Both incarnations swing the sword and axe with exaggerated proficiency.

The nature of the film medium allows several men to play the horsemen. Film offers artists a wide range of possibilities and tricks which many directors do not bother to investigate. Some viewers marveled at Blair Witch‘s ability to create atmosphere with some very ordinary looking woods: the choice to use a “real” location is effective in that particular film. Hollow reminds us of the movie magic that professionals can produce with extraordinary looking woods, built in a studio. There is great pleasure to be had from cameras craning over and around these impossible trees and tracking furiously along with horses as they gallop through the woods. The fog is forever hugging the ground or visibly extinguishing torches and the lightning always cracks on cue.

The film’s presentation of violence jars a little with this studio manufactured atmosphere. The gore is not that which one normally finds on sets which evoke Universal films of the 30s (and Hammer films of the 50s and 60s though Hammer films have their share of gore). Heads roll in this film like bowling balls in The Big Lebowski. The camera lingers over disembodied heads and headless corpses and the blood spurts from one edge of the frame to the other. And for once the liberated heads look remarkably like the actors they represent. Ichabod and others are always suppressing vomit at the sight of these horrors and buffer the audience from revulsion, even though the violence and gore is nearly always tinged with comedy. This is only Burton’s second film to get the ‘R’ rating though. His collaborators have lengthier relationships with this rating. Kevin Yagher is credited as co-writer of the screen story and co-producer of this film. He has done special effects for films in the Child’s Play and Nightmare on Elm Street series, and directed an episode in the Hellraiser series. Screenwriter and co-screen story writer Andrew Kevin Walker made his name with Se7en and the dismal 8MM. So when you are treated to decapitation from every conceivable angle, Yagher and Walker may deserve the credit or blame depending on how your tastes run.

But Sleepy Hollow is a Burton film. To prove it, the director’s regulars are here, including Johnny Depp, Lisa Marie (as young Ichabod’s mother, shown only in his flashbacks), and Danny Elfman doing the requisite spooky score. He is up to an old trick again too. Burton dyed a beautiful young brunette (Winona Ryder) blonde for no apparent reason for Edward Scissorhands. He’s at it again here demonstrating that Christina Ricci has no business leaving the house with blonde hair. Is this his ongoing homage to the ridiculous looking Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis? He should be stopped before he commits this heinous crime again. (I feel better now).

More than the appearance of Burton’s stock company, his treatment of the source text suggests that the director has his own goals in mind. The shortened title tips his hand. As he has done with the Batman films, Burton is not doing an adaption of Irving’s classic tale, he is playing with it, and depending on the audience’s partial awareness of the text. Irving’s tale is resurrected each Halloween, but this film misses that darkest of Holidays. And not only is the film released too late for Halloween, it also misses the Horror film remake bonanza of a few years ago. We were treated (?) to big budget adaptions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Jekyll and Hyde (Mary Reilly) within a few years. The difference is that we had wonderful film versions of these stories already.

Like these previous modern adaptations, this one deviates a great deal from its source text. But the film’s most distinctive feature is Burton’s own mixture of menace and whimsy. The previously mentioned film Night of the Hunter is a reasonable precedent for this film and Burton’s work generally. The only film directed by noted actor Charles Laughton, it mixes humor and horror, and pits childlike innocence against murderous cynicism. That film partially divides itself into a darker first half and a lighter second half.

Burton’s film moves constantly from humor, to romance, to gore and back again. Audiences are better equipped now for these transitions than they were forty years ago, though some viewers may still wish Burton tried to do a little less with his beautiful film. Does it need more romance? Less action? A genuine mystery? I vote for more time in the those woods. Reservations aside, we finally have a big screen version of Sleepy Hollow worth seeing and hopefully viewers will allow a few hours to sample the many goodies Burton has conjured up.

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