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 Se7enMake 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.
  • Scarecrows.
  • 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.

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! 

You may also like...

  • jackcolton

    first again. this is becoming embarrassing. ppl are gonna think I check this site before I’ve even rubbed the sleep out of my eyes …… 1 min later …

    Once again a film I haven’t watched in many years so like yourself I’d have to rewatch to form a proper opinion. I recall not being overwhelmed by it, but like you said it looked great and the terrific cast were on fine form. I’ll add this to my watch list, which is getting ridiculously long now. (next to watch on that list btw is Midnight Special and The Freighteners)

    Tbh I haven’t fully enjoyed a Tim Burton film since his early days. Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood are my favourites.

  • What an awesome movie! I loved it from start to finish, and I think that has a lot to do with it being on the cusp of Johnny Depp over-saturation. Of course he has always worked a lot but it seemed like after this soon came PotC and then all Depp-hell broke loose. But when Sleepy Hollow premiered it was something of a novelty to sort of see Depp return to Edward Scissorhands form: pale, awkward, and with a shock of messy dark hair.
    Stu, you ask how seriously you should take this movie, which immediately made me think: “how seriously should we take ANY Tim Burton movie?” Burton clearly delights in being weird and a bit shocking, so I am more than happy to go along for the ride. The scene where Crane is performing an autopsy is perhaps the best example of Tim Burton’s aesthetic: Crane is trying his best to seem in authority and in control, only to make an incision and bear a squirt of dark sticky liquid hitting him directly in the face. The scene goes from dread to gross-out to hilarious in the space of minutes. I love that shit.
    Let’s not also forget that Darth Maul himself, Ray Park, stunt-doubled as the Horseman during the all-too-brief fight scenes. He is on best display during the fight against Casper Van Dien and Johhny Depp.
    And now I feel like watching it again. Thanks, Stu!

    • Glad you enjoyed the read!

    • President of what?

      Ray Park wanted to play as Iron Fist and sadly, never got the chance. What we ended up with from the Netflix series is nothing compared to Park’s awesome skills and talents!

      • I think the world needs more Ray Park. I hated that he was wasted in X-Men.

        • President of what?

          And I hated how X-Men was wasted! (To a degree at least.)

          • I dislike all the X-Men movies to one degree or another; there are fun moments here and there but I can’t say I like one whole movie. X2 is probably my favorite, it had a lot of heart and that opening scene…DAMN! But I can say one thing about them: they feature some of the shittiest stunt-wire work I think I’ve ever seen. Forget superheroes defying gravity or whatever. These movies always have a moment or two that looks like a Dragonball Z cartoon.

          • President of what?

            LMMFAO Good analogy,Haul!
            X2’s Deathstrike fight was kinda over the top but yes, the Nightcrawler scene was damn legit! I just resent how the franchise was mostly centered around Wolverine , when there were just as other important characters.

            That being said, Logan was the last of the best X-Men films.

          • Thanks, Prez!
            I’ve yet to see Logan, it’s gonna be awhile but I hear many good things and a few mediocre things.

        • jackcolton

          Ray park wasn’t wasted in XMen. there’s no way he could have performed those stunts drunk!

  • I_am_better

    Love this film. One of Burton’s best. And I like how insanely dark and violent it is – especially compared to his following work (with the exception of Sweeney Todd).

  • President of what?

    I like the contrast between your review and Dee’s. Personally, I think this film took me by surprise and we got to see Walken at his most menacing ever! Skip the bullshit Roberto Orci conceived TV series under the same name, this is the real deal!
    My favorite Burton film since Batman Returns! That’s right, i said it!

    • jackcolton

      you typed it too.

      • President of what?


    • There’s a TV show?

      • President of what?

        Sadly, yes.
        Its been on the FOX Network for over a span of 2 years.?

      • Dee-abolik

        First episodes were fun actually, but then it plummeted quickly in terms of quality…

      • Never saw it but the trailers made it look, well, much as the name implies.

  • The Magic Hunter

    Good points all of ye!

    I agree with Stu and HTR that retroactively this film can be seen as a line in the sand in the careers of both Burton and Depp. Afterwards, both have slid further and further from the peaks of clear greatness down into the Uncanny Valley of Unintentional Self-Identifying-Characteristics-Exaggeration. A sort of Baudrillard-type phenomenon. Here’s a random quote from him to make me seem smart:

    “Whereas representation attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulacrum. Such would be the successive phases of the image: it is the reflection of a profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality; it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.”

    I feel like both Depp and Burton played with both earnest and ironic depictions of reality so much early on (not only together: See Depp moving from “21 Jump Street” to John Waters’s “Cry Baby”) that the very ground they stand upon now, as cinematic icons, is soggy with questionable meaning. At the other site, a while back, I said that we’re living in the Era of Confused Ambiguity, and here I think we can see some of the seeds of that.

    • jackcolton

      can you write all that again like I’m a 10 yr old?

      • The Magic Hunter

        Those fools can’t fool us like they used to.

    • Dee-abolik

      Or simply “Never believe your own hype”

  • Dee-abolik

    I see you are not as enthusiastic about it as me, although we agree on many points… I guess the “gleeful approach to violence” was what really struck a chord with me, lol.

  • Sagamanus

    Never heard of it. I should check it out.

  • dceu is rising

    I really do like this movie, the most tim burtony of all Tim burtons movies