Sleepy Hollow (1999) – A Look Back
1799. New York Police Constable Ichabod Crane is sent to the small Hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of brutal murders. Murders where the victims are decapitated.
The local townsfolk insist that the culprit is a “Headless Horseman”. A dark tormented spirit of a Hessian mercenary from the time of the revolution. Legend has it that he’s in search of his own missing head.
Crane is sceptical of this explanation until he encounters the fiery apparition himself. Taken with Katrina, daughter of the Von Tassel family whom he is lodging with – and teaming up with a young lad called Masbeth who was orphaned by the Horseman – he becomes determined to stop the slayings.
As Crane investigates further he comes to realise that the Horseman is only killing selected victims and ignoring others. Someone is controlling him. A supernatural conspiracy tears at the heart of Sleepy Hollow – and a terrifying battle is about to be fought.
Based on Washington Irving’s famous short story – the screenplay was written by Andrew Kevin Walker. On a hot streak after the critical and commercial smash of Se7en. Make up effects were provided by Kevin Yagher.
In adapting the story for the screen the character of Crane was turned into a Police Constable – rather than a Schoolmaster as he is traditionally depicted.
Tim Burton was selected as director. A huge fan of the British Hammer Horror films he created an affectionate tribute here. Enthusiastically using those films as an influence he cast Hammer legends Christopher Lee and Michael Gough in pivotal roles.
Johnny Depp was chosen to be Ichabod Crane, Christina Ricci as Katrina Von Tassel – and Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman himself.
The score was provided by Burton regular Danny Elfman.
The film was released in late 1999 to box office success and decidedly mixed reviews. The gorgeous production design, cinematography and visual effects were widely praised, but the movie was criticised in some circles for it’s somewhat gleeful approach to violence.
So. 18 years later how does the film stand up? To do this review I watched this film for probably the first time in over a decade. It was suggested to me by Dee-Abolik who’s also going to be doing a review over on The Supernaughts (be sure to look out for that one). I didn’t really remember much of it so I watched VERY closely.
Immediately I was taken aback by the movie’s gore. The opening decapitation of the cameoing Martin Landau was actually genuinely shocking. As his head was separated from his neck I actually gasped! As I did many more times as the film unfolded in front of me. This is not a film that holds back. At all!
Johnny Depp’s Ichabod Crane is a wonderful creation. At first somewhat cowardly he develops a certain bravery as the supernatural implications of what he’s facing become clear. Christina Ricci is also very good.
I was very impressed with the cast. There’s a great roster of British talent on display with such established thespians as Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid and Richard Griffiths all on absolutely top form. I do love seeing great British actors in such large productions as this. I’ve always loved the appreciation shown by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to our shores. Despite being set in New York this was very clearly filmed here in England – and it’s just lovely to see.
As for the Headless Horseman himself he’s TERRIFYING. A dark ghoulish force of nature with the wind at his back – the scenes featuring him are electrifying. The film always steps up a few notches when he’s onscreen. Part of what makes him so scary is how pitiless he is. He’s not above murdering pregnant women or children when commanded to do so. He’s not a villain to be trifled with.
So. Is it any good?
Well it’s certainly beautiful to look at. The desaturated look of the cinematography is key to establishing the late 18th century aesthetic. Fog, subtle greys browns and blacks. Often offset by the brilliant reds of the film’s more vicious scenes. It certainly has a striking look to it. A look that is simultaneously beautiful and sinister.
The problem I found is that I didn’t know how seriously I should take it or not. There is an undercurrent of dark humour to the proceedings obviously – but I still didn’t know whether or not it was right to be amused. Especially the scene where Crane and his charge visit a witch. Sure it provides a great jump scare that would usually make us giggle afterwards… but it’s a bit difficult to laugh when we’ve just seen the witch cut of a bat’s head with a scalpel.
The visual effects are still astonishing. I was taken with the Horseman’s entrances and exits to the town of Sleepy Hollow via a tree which hides a portal to the netherworld in it’s roots. That was pretty striking.
It’s notable as the work of a true auteur and it was fun to pick out Burton’s directorial trademarks.
- The gothic feel.
- Halloween imagery.
- A misunderstood protagonist initially mistrusted by the townsfolk.
- Flashbacks to the lead’s past which have a bearing on the story later on.
- Bad father/father figures.
- Appearance by Lisa Marie (Burton’s then wife and muse).
- Scenes of snowfall.
- Exterior shots of a house with characters peering through the windows.
It’s a very well made film and a lot of love obviously went into it. I feel though that maybe Burton’s vision was bit too strong here. It’s not really a very accessible film. Since it’s based on such a classic of American literature I feel the audience it was aiming for was perhaps a tad too limited.
The best way to describe it I think is it’s like eating a meal where the flavour is somewhat overpowering.
I like weird. I don’t mind gore and violence when it’s used correctly within the context of the story being told. Yet I get the feeling that maybe in the case of Sleepy Hollow – less could’ve been more.
Still it’s worth watching this dark and ghoulish nightmare of a movie – if only to debate it’s merits.
Now please head over to The Supernaughts – and enjoy!
The Man Who Saved Movies. Kill it! No, no! Stun it!