(1999) Directed by Tim Burton; Written by Andrew Kevin Walker; Based on the story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving; Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson and Christopher Walken; Available on DVD and Blu-ray.
When I learned that Page at the wonderfully nostalgic blog MyLove of Old Hollywood was hosting this first-ever Horseathon, I jumped at the chance to participate (Many thanks to Page for graciously allowing me to join the festivities!). It didn’t take long for me to decide that my only choice would be Tim Burton’s retelling of Washington Irving’s classic tale about the Headless Horseman.
Tim Burton has received a bad rap lately. It’s almost become fashionable to bash Burton for his predictable casting decisions, and recycling the same tired themes and visuals over and over (case in point, the abysmal Alice in Wonderland). Dwelling on his most recent efforts, however, has made it easy to forget that he created some of the most consistently distinctive and deliciously idiosyncratic mainstream Hollywood films of the 80s and 90s (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood). By now, it’s become something of a cliché to expect Johnny Depp to appear in a Tim Burton movie, but when Sleepy Hollow was released in 1999, it had only been their third collaboration.
Sleepy Hollow was based very loosely on Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” It’s clear that Burton and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker intended to utilize the source material as a springboard rather than a template. Johnny Depp hardly matches Irving’s original description of Ichabod Crane as a tall, gangly schoolmaster (refer to the Disney animated version for a more faithful interpretation). Likewise, Crane’s profession has been revised from teacher to an eccentric police inspector who’s afraid of his own shadow. Irving’s simple ghost story of dubious veracity (according to the original tale’s narrator) has been transformed to a full-blown mystery with supernatural overtones. In Burton’s insightful DVD commentary he described his movie as a “Scooby Doo mystery.”
Depp strikes the right notes as consummate skeptic Crane. He’s tasked by an imposing New York burgomaster (in a cameo by the incomparable Christopher Lee*) to investigate a series of strange murders in the rural town of Sleepy Hollow. He tries to solve the mystery with dispassionate objectivity and a scientific eye, although his timid nature keeps getting the better of him. Depp adds some amusing comic flourishes, including an unfortunate tendency to faint and awkwardness on his trusty steed Gunpowder**, to the otherwise somber proceedings. As he gets closer to the answers, he’s forced to reassess his strict adherence to reason, and accept that rumors of a spectral horseman are more than just delusions.
* Fun fact: Although Christopher Lee and Michael Gough (as Notary Hardenbrook) never shared any screen time in Sleepy Hollow, it served as a reunion of sorts for the two actors, who worked together on Hammer’s The Horror of Dracula 41 years earlier.
** Fun fact number two: In an interesting side story, the real-life horse that portrayed Crane’s horse Gunpowder (real name Goldeneye) was supposed to be euthanized, but Depp decidedto adopt it.
Christopher Walken has a commanding presence as the Headless Horseman, a Hessian soldier who met a nasty demise but refuses to stay dead. Except for a few well-placed shouts, Walken never utters a word but communicates through facial expressions and movement. His maniacal appearance, augmented by pasty complexion, wild hair and sharp teeth, completes the portrait of a horseman straight out of hell. Burton likened Walken’s performance to a silent film star, which seems to be a fair comparison. The Horseman’s face does bear at least a passing resemblance to Lon Chaney in the famous lost silent flick London After Midnight. It’s a testament to Walken’s acting ability that he manages to pull off the illusion of confidence on horseback, despite being completely inexperienced with riding prior to this film. He brings some nice touches to what could have been a one-note performance by less talented performers. When he’s not mercilessly chopping off heads, he has a surprisingly soft spot for his trusty horse (proving, perhaps, that he couldn’t be all bad).
Sleepy Hollow proudly wears its influences on its sleeve. Burton consciously created a loving homage to the classic horror films of yesteryear, from the casting of Christopher Lee to the many touches that have become synonymous with Hammer films: splashes of blood, gothic melodrama and heaving bosoms. Burton also acknowledged how he was influenced by other classic horror films, such as the 1931 Frankenstein (note the climactic showdown in the windmill), Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, and Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Danny Elfman’s dramatic score, a throwback to decades past, complements the darkly romantic atmosphere of the film. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki sets the gothic tone perfectly, with mostly muted grays and browns, contrasted by vivid splashes of blood red.
Speaking of blood, the top notch practical effects work by Kevin Yagher deserve special mention. I can’t recall another movie where severed heads looked so lifelike (take that as you will). Reportedly, the fake heads looked so good that they disturbed several of the actors whose characters fell victim to the Horseman, except for Michael Gambon (as Baltus Van Tassel), who once commented that he wanted to keep his head and send it off on auditions.
Sleepy Hollow is a moody, atmospheric take on a classic Halloween tale that’s also an ideal match for Tim Burton’s gothic sensibilities. If you can get past the fact that it’s not an accurate retelling of Irving’s original story you’ll have a good time. It achieves a rare balance between horrifying and fun, and pays respect to its numerous influences while never losing sight of its own identity.