Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriters: Andrew Kevin Walker, Kevin Yagher
By Roderick Heath
Alongside his own ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ Washington Irving’s story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is probably the best-known work of American literature from before the time of Poe and James Fenimore Cooper. Born in New York in the early years of the republic, Irving, after struggling as a merchant, found success in his twenties as a writer, journalist, and editor, and later pursued a career as a diplomat, serving for a time as ambassador to Spain. Amongst Irving’s random, still-resonating achievements ranked coining the phrase “the almighty dollar” and the nickname “Gotham” for New York, publishing the Francis Scott Key poem that became ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ popularising the false notion medieval Europeans thought the world was flat before Columbus, and having one of his pen names inspire the name of the New York Knicks. The roots of Irving’s most famous labours went back to his teenaged years, when a yellow fever epidemic caused his parents to send him to live with a friend in upstate New York. During that sojourn Irving first encountered Sleepy Hollow, a small town founded by Dutch settlers. His two most famous stories were both first published in a collection entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Irving connected several elements of local lore for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ including the history of the locale during the Revolutionary War, as he created the story of the timorous schoolmaster Ichabod Crane. Crane moves to Sleepy Hollow and becomes involved with a local girl, only to encounter the ghost of a Hessian mercenary soldier decapitated in battle but still terrorising the local byways.
Tim Burton, born in Burbank, California in 1958, is another curious American artist of the fanciful and student of the arcane and eerie. Burton started making short films with an 18mm camera as a child, displayed aptitude as an artist, and studied animation after leaving school. For a time he worked at Disney Studios in various artistic capacities and making short films on the side. One of these was the six-minute stop-motion animation Vincent (1983), depicting a young boy who fantasizes about being his hero Vincent Price, winning Burton his first burst of attention. Shortly after, he made a live-action version of Hansel and Gretel with a Japonaise style, sporting a kung fu fight between the titular duo and the witch, an early example of Burton’s habit of mischievously remixing various genres: that work screened once on the Disney Channel and was barely sighted again. Then he made Frankenweenie (1984), another stop-motion work about a junior mad scientist who revives his dog, killed by being run over by a car. Disney fired Burton for wasting company resources on something too scary for kids, but screenings of the short attracted the attention of comedian Paul Rubens, who, looking to play his popular comedy character Pee-wee Herman in a movie, hired Burton to direct Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). It was a hit, and Burton scarcely looked back.
Burton’s initial success was rooted in a projection of a singular identity. He was a director capable of balancing commercial imperatives with a strong personal inflection sourced in a passion for retro 1950s and ‘60s kitsch culture, old horror movies and other disreputable genres, eccentric and often mean humour, and stories sporting losers, freaks, and outsiders recast as heroes. He connected with a hip young audience somewhat starved for flavour in the oh-so-slick ‘80s mainstream movie culture and gained cultish fervour with the next three films he made – Beetlejuice (1987), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Burton was the most mainstream-acceptable, at least at first, of a generation of director sharing similar touchstones and a similarly unstable sense of genre, delighting in blending provocation with playfulness, also including Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon, and Peter Jackson. The rest of his career has however proven patchy. His follow-up to the hugely successful, high-style take on Batman, Batman Returns (1992), despite some potent elements, was more divisive and less successful. His best film to date, the tragicomic biopic Ed Wood (1994), and its follow-up, the gleefully sick comic alien invasion movie Mars Attacks (1996), were both box office disappointments, and his career was hampered by being drawn into an ill-fated attempt to make a Superman movie starring Nicholas Cage. Later, as his career moved into the 2000s and 2010s, Burton became more assured as a box office hand with a string of reboots, remakes, and would-be franchise-starters given a light gloss of the patented Burton black nail-polish touch, but he paid a price for this, as his movies were now often met with blank critical and former fan hostility. Sometimes the dismissal has been deserved, sometimes not.
Whilst a great number of Burton’s films interpolate imagery and ideas harvested from Horror cinema – Batman applied lashings of Expressionist paint to the superhero film and did the same with Edward Scissorhands to a blend of romantic fairy-tale and John Waters-esque suburban satire – few of his movies have actually, properly belong to the genre. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) did, but with the conceit of being a musical too, whilst Beetlejuice and Dark Shadows (2012) crossbred Horror with roguish comedy. Sleepy Hollow, released in 1999, is the closest he’s come to date to make a straight-up Horror film, and even it’s as much camp parody and action film as Horror. It is nonetheless one of Burton’s best films – indeed the one I enjoy most purely of his work save Ed Wood – and a last hurrah in paying tribute to the old-fashioned gothic horror style. The film, written by Andrew Kevin Walker who had a major success writing David Fincher’s 1996 hit Se7en with its adolescent grunge moralism, was originally slated to be a low-budget potboiler to be directed by makeup effects artist Kevin Yagher, who finished up serving in that capacity as well as co-producing when Burton came on board, whilst Francis Ford Coppola was loosely involved in the same capacity. Burton set about transforming the inherited project into a wildly stylish tribute to old Hammer and Universal Horror movies and Mario Bava films, shooting it in England and mostly on sets.
Irving’s story had been filmed many times before, most memorably as a portion of the 1949 animated Disney film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (where it was partnered with an episode taken from The Wind and the Willows). ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ chapter exemplified the old Disney’s brilliance at animation and willingness to conjure ghoulish imagery for a young audience. Burton inserts some visual references to the Disney take into his, including the famous climactic image of the headless horseman hurling a hollow jack o’lantern at Ichabod, blazing maw and eyes looming at the camera. Burton’s Sleepy Hollow nonetheless goes off on a tangent from straightforward adaptation, taking the basics of the Irving style whilst crossbreeding them with aspects of the nascent steampunk branch of fantastical fiction, fascinated by anachronistic but theoretically possible anticipations of modern technology and social attitudes in period settings, and detective story. Ichabod is portrayed as not a teacher but a policeman interested in sifting clues and deduction at a time when maintaining law and order was a very simple, brutal affair, and he’s flung into the mystery of headless horseman’s murderous maraudings.
The film’s pre-title sequences open on wealthy Sleepy Hollow landowner Peter Van Garrett (Martin Landau), after busily preparing and sealing a legal document, setting out in a coach driven by his son Dirk (Robert Sella) from his house to town. As they pass through his fields filled with growing corn and overlooked by a creepy scarecrow with a jack o’lantern head, Peter overhears the neigh of a horse and the ring of a steel blade, and looks out to see his son has been decapitated. Leaping from the coach, Peter retreats into the corn, only to be chased down by an unseen assailant and likewise left headless. Meanwhile in Manhattan, Ichabod (Johnny Depp), a constable with the New York Police, fishes a corpse out of the Hudson River, but his desire to make a pathology examination to determine the cause of death is foiled by a dismissive High Constable (Alun Armstrong). When he protests to a presiding judge (Christopher Lee), the judge, irritated by Ichabod’s radicalism, challenges him to accept the assignment of travelling to Sleepy Hollow and investigate the murders of the two Van Garretts and another local, the Widow Winship. Ichabod accepts, and travels north, finding lodging with another major local landowner, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), with his comely new wife Mary (Miranda Richardson) and grown-up daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci) from his previous marriage.
The core joke of Sleepy Hollow is that whilst its version of Ichabod Crane now occupies the role of man of action and incisive intellectual vision, equal prototype for Sherlock Holmes, Van Helsing, and Dirty Harry and conflating two centuries of pulp fiction heroes, he’s actually, essentially the same timorous, incongruous figure Irving created. Burton wields the disparity to mock a familiar kind of genre hero whilst also presenting the story of how Ichabod grows into the role, at least as far as he can. Upon arrival in Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod cringes before gruesome sights, gulps when people warn him about the horseman, is bullied by local jock Brom (Casper Van Dien), and leaps up on a chair when he spies a spider crawling across his room’s floor. He bears mysterious scars on his hands that bespeak a hidden trauma in his past motivating his determination, against all his physical and emotional reflexes, to take on evil and prove a force for rational good, and so attacks the problems before him with all the fortitude and purpose he can muster. His attempts to wield his hand-crafted medical tools in his investigations invariably result in aniety and revulsion from onlookers and a lot of mess. His methods, including play-acting the role of the killer’s giant horse as he inspects the ground around a victim’s corpse and notes the meaning of the hoof-prints, generally make him look rather barmy to the bewildered and frightened locals. The Sleepy Hollow denizens keep telling Ichabod about the horseman, but Ichabod as a rationalist refuses to believe this, until he’s presented with the terrifying sight the black-clad rider in full murderous charge.
In similar fashion, Sleepy Hollow enlarges upon aspects of the Irving story to weave an involved plot and make thematic capital out of the idea of the ghosts of the Revolutionary War and the colonial age not yet at rest. Baltus narrates the tale of the horseman to Ichabod, whereupon Burton interpolates a marvellous flashback that evokes the theatrical artificiality of early cinema, with jostling muskets and bayonets of clashing armies in the foreground and the mounted Hessian lurking beyond against an expressionistically stylised set full of sturm-und-drung. The Hessian is glimpsed, played by a wittily cast (and unbilled) Christopher Walken without dialogue, as a ferocious warrior who’s filed his teeth into monstrous fangs: even before he’s killed and resurrected, the Hessian’s desire is to become a perfect beast of war. Burton segues from this stylised hellishness to a scene of hallucinatory beauty infiltrated by a diseased presence: the Hessian is chased into snowy woods by Continental soldiers, where he encounters two children, blonde sisters, one of who gives away his position. The Hessian fights with all his ferocity and kills many foes, but is finally skewered, beheaded, and his corpse dumped in a grave.
Burton, through his streamlined flow of gorgeous imagery, reaches here through a recreation of a highly stylised silent film aesthetic which itself was drawn from stage performance and shadow puppet theatre, before conjuring the ironic fairy-tale setting as backdrop to the Hessian’s defeat. Later in the film Burton notes a young boy fascinated by the flitting images of witches and ghouls cast out by his magic lantern. This brief vignette nonetheless allows Burton to note the grand tradition of entertainment by frightful frisson and invocation of the uncanny that reaches back far beyond the age of cinema, and the film’s entire form manages to encapsulate an animated history of that tradition without sacrificing narrative flow and coherence. A bauble Ichabod inherited from his mother, which he shows to Katrina, creates an optical illusion of a bird alternating between being caged and freed: Katrina amusedly calls it magic whilst Ichabod insists it’s science, and of course it’s also the distant prototype for cinema itself, the combination of both.
Meanwhile the casting makes immediate connections with the movie tradition Burton’s having a ball recreating, first and foremost with Lee’s early cameo (commencing his late career revival extended by The Lord of the Rings films and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, as well as Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005, all of which would help to make Lee technically the top box office star of 2006) and his Dracula (1958) costar Michael Gough, who Burton brought into the blockbuster age by casting him as Alfred in Batman, playing Sleepy Hollow notary Hardenbrook. The rest of the coterie of noble gentlemen comprising Sleepy Hollow’s powers-that-be are filled out by a notable gang of character actors, including Gambon, Richard Griffiths as the town’s frightened and boozy Magistrate, Samuel Philipse, Ian McDiarmid as local doctor Thomas Lancaster, and Jeffrey Jones as Paster Steenwyck. This collective of familiar faces lets Burton nudge whodunit territory, as the question of who resurrected the Hessian and has now unleashed him on seemingly random residents of the town becomes Ichabod’s preoccupying quandary. And also in pure whodunit territory is the solution to that as the one notable person who seems to hover on the fringes.
Ichabod arrives at the Van Tassel manse as Baltus is throwing as Ichabod arrives, and strangeness is already lurking the shadows, as Ichabod glimpses a silhouetted couple snogging on the porch. Inside the house, Ichabod first encounters Katrina as she plays blind-man’s-bluff and catches Ichabod as he tries to pass by, giving him a kiss “on account” much to the chagrin of her suitor Brom. “Young man you are welcome,” Baltus says to Ichabod as he plays the happy host, “Even if you are selling something.” Ichabod reveals his purpose, casting a pall over proceedings, and the village gentlemen try to explain the situation to the policeman. When he’s installed in an attic room, serving girl Sarah (Jessica Oyelowo) tells Ichabod “Thank god you’ve come!”, to his swivel-eyed disquiet, and within a short time a former servant of Van Garrett, Jonathan Masbath (Mark Spalding), is killed by the horseman whilst on guard duty awaiting its appearance. On a tip from Philipse, Ichabod soon exhumes the other victims of the horseman and finds, to his revulsion, that the killer not only beheaded the Widow Winship but also her unborn child inside her womb with a deft sword thrust.
One night as he walks through the village, Ichabod is terrorised by what seems to be the horseman, carrying a jack o’lantern, only to be hit by it and knocked silly whilst the rider is revealed to be Brom, playing a prank with some hastily contrived disguise. This vignette, as well as sporting nods to the Disney version, refers back to the Irving story, which left events purposefully vague, so that Ichabod might well have been scared off by Brom in the horseman’s guise rather than killed by the ghoul. When Ichabod confronts Philipse as he’s trying to flee town, the horseman rides out of the fog and beheads the Magistrate, but leaves Ichabod alone to faint away in fright. After battling through his shock, Ichabod finds himself taking in Masbath’s son (Mark Pickering) as a servant, and the two venture into the reputedly haunted western woods where the Hessian was buried. Along the way, they spy someone following them, which proves to be Katrina, valiantly determined to stick with them. They also encounter a witch who keeps her face hidden by a veil, who summons a demonic entity to possess her and give Ichabod some pointers of where to seek out the Hessian’s grave, at what she calls “the Tree of the Dead.”
After departing hastily, Ichabod and his two companions soon locate the grave under its unmistakeable marker, a black, gnarled tree that sprang up and died since the Hessian’s burial and still has his sword wedged in its roots, which also conceal a portal stuffed with the severed heads of the horseman’s victims and concealing a portal to Hell. As Ichabod digs up the Hessian’s skeleton he finds its skull is missing. The supernatural entity itself bursts from the heart of the tree and pounds off through the forest in search of another victim, with Ichabod giving chase. The Hessian’s next target proves to be a midwife, Beth Killian (Claire Skinner) and her husband (Steven Waddington): the horseman bursts into their house and swiftly slays both. Burton, never averse to risking some real darkness even in his playful films, provides a brief, black-hearted send-up of the climax of Aliens (1986) as the Skinners’ young son Thomas (Sean Stephens) tries to elude the horseman by crawling about under the floorboards, only for the ghoul to smash through the floorboards and claim the lad’s head for his bag of trophies. Ichabod arrives just as Brom confronts the Hessian, and the two men try to bring him down, but the headless monster soon cuts Brom in half and leaves Ichabod with a sword wound, instantly cauterised by the blade’s devilish heat.
All of this unfolds in Burton’s updated version of the kinds of gnarled, fogbound, permanently autumnal rural landscapes seen in the old Universal Horror films like Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941), and similarly creating the oppressive atmosphere by shooting on cleverly dressed sets. The attempt to recreate the old soundstage Horror style had been presaged by Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) and Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), but where those directors approached the aesthetic with a kind of art installation-like self-consciousness, Burton entirely enters into the logic of the world he conjures. Burton’s nods to classic Horror history are plentiful and mostly cleverly kneaded into the story. The windmill that provides the setting for part of the climax is based on the one seen at the end of The Brides of Dracula (1960). The scene in which young Ichabod discovers his mother locked in an iron maiden ticks off both Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), as the mother’s eyes stare out of the steel prison before her hole-ridden face is unleashed in a flood of gore. Burton and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki first considered making Sleepy Hollow in black-and-white, before adopting a compelling visual texture, largely desaturated and rendered in shades of grey, save for careful deployments of colour, where the black thatch of Ichabod’s hair swallows light whilst the blonde tresses of Katrina seem to exude it.
Sleepy Hollow came out at a time when CGI was making movie special effects increasingly sophisticated and the magic lantern show all the more seamless. Burton was able to portray the headless horseman (with stuntman Ray Park playing the headless Hessian) without the kind of awkward costuming effects used in something like The Mysterious Doctor (1943) with its headless ghost, or the infamous ‘Chopper’ episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker with its poorly realised variation on the horseman as a headless motorcyclist. He was also able to juice up the various beheadings with flourishes largely impossible prior to the CGI era, like one head getting hacked off and spinning about like a top on the severed neck. The felicity of this is debatable. The more cartoonish effects, particularly those used in Ichabod’s encounter with the witch feels like they came out of a different movie, giving the slight impression Burton was anxious about selling a neo-gothic horror movie to a mass audience without the crutch of absurd-flecked spectacle. But the special effects are also used to real effect at points too. When the Hessian comes to claim the elder Masbath, tendrils of drifting mist seem to reach out and extinguish burning torches. In the climax, the horseman, restoring his reclaimed skull, regrows all the flesh on his head.
Sleepy Hollow exhibits much of Burton’s imaginative genius, and also some of his niggling faults, if here kept in proportion. His tendency to take the edge off his gore effects by emphasising black comedy messiness to them, with Ichabod constantly getting spurting bodily fluids over himself, cuts against the grain of the fetishised majesty of the old-school genre trappings and the essential seriousness of the story: the character comedy based in Ichabod’s anxious heroism works far better. Burton seems here to have been trying to live up to the example of some of his generational fellows who came out of their own, hand-crafted cinema and wielded a harder edge to their deliriously funny, transgressive use of gore. On the other hand, Burton’s indulgence in this regard is arguably authentic in exemplifying the tradition of the Grand Guignol approach to Horror, specialising in both provoking and delighting an audience with spectacles of absurd bloodshed. Burton’s occasional problems with tone, a tendency that helped and harmed his Batman films with their sharp swerves from comic jauntiness to sleazy violence, also manifests at points.
The film never affects to be an authentic period piece, but rather a wry meditation on the emergence of modernity’s earliest glimmers from the pall of history, with both the wielders of religious authority and black magicians indicted as two sides of the same coin. The New York constabulary is seen showing off medieval torture machines even as Ichabod is trying to invent pathology and detective method at least seventy years early. “The millennium is almost upon us!” Ichabod declares to the judge early in the film, trying to inject future-shock promise into a moment still slithering out of medievalism. This connects with Burton’s recurring flourishes regarding the roots of cinema. This in turn feeds into Burton’s semi-sarcastic exploration of the familiar genre tension between rationalism and superstition, which he couches in terms of his established interest in damaged heroes. Burton’s emphasis on the formative backstory and resulting psychological dance of gallantry and derangement in the hero of Batman did much to define the obsession with such things in contemporary storytelling: heroes without backstories to overcomes in their character arcs are compulsory now where they were essentially pretexts in classic genre literature. Here, Ichabod experiences dreamily-styled flashbacks, all provoked by moments of shock and wounding as his travails in Sleepy Hollow forcing him to reckon with his past. It slowly emerges that his father, Lord Crane (Peter Guinness), had his mother (Lisa Marie) tortured and killed for practicing her own brand of white magic.
Burton saves particularly vivid stylisation for these fragmentary visions which contains hues of colour bled out of the rest of the film, portraying glimmering fairy-tale wonder giving way to awful nightmarish menace as the story unfolds, and childhood perspective gives way to adult, a state Burton essentially regards as less the achievement of maturity than the result of constant, scar-forming wounding. This idea is made literal as the scars on Ichabod’s hands came from gripping spiked torture implements in his shock at finding his mother locked in the iron maiden. Ichabod’s attempts to stand for reason and justice are rooted in his “bible-black tyrant” of a father’s killing of his “child of nature” mother, grievous patriarchy exterminating magical maternalism. A pattern Ichabod can’t help falling into again when his logic and the nature of appearances leads him to misunderstand Katrina’s attempts to protect him with her own white magic.
Katrina’s stoked memories of childhood are happier than Ichabod’s, recalling spending an idyllic time with her parents when they were poor tenants on Van Garrett land. Katrina takes Ichabod to the ruins of the cottage where they lived and points out to Ichabod an archer carved into the fireplace, an emblem that proves to have crucial meaning in the mystery of the horseman. Meanwhile Ichabod’s investigations uncover varying levels of greed, lust, cowardice, double-dealing, and manipulation convulsing through the Sleepy Hollow denizens, as when he follows Mary out into the woods when he sees her acting furtively, and beholds the spectacle of her screwing Steenwyck on a bed of clammy autumn leaves, slicing her hand open with a dagger and rubbing her blood on his back in a sex magick rite. Notary Hardenbrook quite literally hides in the closet to avoid being interviewed by Ichabod, and the detective finds him in possession of Van Garrett’s legal documents, which he claims and finds to be a will. During a brainstorming session in his room, Ichabod scribbles down random notes on paper without noticing they accrue to say, quite accurately, “the secret conspiracy point to Baltus,” as indeed all the horseman’s killings seem to have left Baltus as heir to the Van Garrett estate. Ichabod’s digging soon causes a rift between him and Katrina, who warns Ichabod her father isn’t that kind of man.
The unfolding mystery finally combusts when Baltus sees the horseman advancing on Mary as she collects ingredients for herbal medicine, and, assuming the ghoul kills her, flees to the town just as the denizens are collecting in the church. Chaos ensues in a brilliantly choreographed and filmed sequence, as the besieged villagers try to fend off the Hessian as he rides around the church, held out of consecrated ground but looking for some means to nab his prey Baltus. Meanwhile Steenwyck beats Lancaster to death when the doctor tries to warn Baltus he’s been the victim of a conspiracy, and Baltus shoots Steenwyck. Katrina urgently draws a talismanic symbol on the church floor with a piece of chalk. Finally the cunning Hessian makes a lance with a fencepost, ties a rope to it, and spears Baltus through the window, pulling him out of the church and across the grass to the fence line so the ghoul can claim his head. Katrina faints, and, in a glorious high tracking shot, Burton surveys the scene of sprawled bodies and the taunting emblem of Katrina’s magic, which seems to all to have been the invocation whipping up the horseman. Only later, as he prepares to depart Sleepy Hollow in sullen defeat and disillusion, determined to protect Katrina but also convinced she was his puppeteer, does Ichabod, twirling the bird bauble, realise he’s fallen prey to a game of illusions. Quickly enough he realises that the apparently killed Mary is the real puppeteer, having slain the servant Sarah and substituted her body for her own. Meanwhile Mary has appeared to Katrina, knocked her out, and spirited her to the windmill she uses as a base for her witchcraft.
Richardson’s fabulous performance, once properly unleashed, expertly juggles the diverging urges between camp melodrama and hard urgency manifest throughout the film, as Mary explains her plot with relish to Katrina, who is the last person standing between her and ownership of Sleepy Hollow. Her motive was vengeance for her family’s eviction from the cottage, which her father built, the archer symbol in the fireplace a reference to their family name of Archer. She and her twin sister were the two girls who encountered the Hessian, and Mary the one who brought about his death, and whilst the sister became the hermitic witch of the forest, Mary set about mastering black magic to resurrect the horseman and use him n her plot to kill off all potential alternative heirs to the Van Garrett and Van Tassel estates. Mary’s triumphal monologue succeeds in unifying the conventions of the whodunit, with the whys and hows of Mary’s campaign illustrated in a cascade of flashbacks and glimpsed vignettes, including of her murdering her sister and seducing Steenwyck, and a raft of bloody, bizarre business befitting a Horror movie. Mary’s revelations present her as a companion and counterpoint to Ichabod as another survivor of traumatic formative experiences driven to wage a private war with the world, but her informed by class rage and a psychopathic streak all her own – she’s established as already a bit of bitch when she betrays the Hessian – and evil, murderous rather than protective and empowering ends in mind. Burton would repeat the motif of the witchy avenger of social wrongs wielding sympathetic motives but ugly and egocentric method in Dark Shadows.
Depp has lost a lot of paint in the past few years after being accused of abusiveness in his personal life, legal wrangles, and too many goddamned Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Nonetheless it must be said that Sleepy Hollow was a fitting cap for the period he spent through most of the 1990s as the most interesting and adventurous leading man in Hollywood, and when his and Burton’s regular collaborations were still events. In Sleepy Hollow he gives one of the best lead performances in a Horror movie, dynamic in sustaining both the comic and serious aspects to his characterisation. His Ichabod, wielding a deft English accent, is reminiscent after a fashion of Christopher Reeve’s similarly good bipolar performance in Superman (1978), the would-be man of reason and boldness suffering as his whole body tenses up, nostrils thinning to tight slits and mouth twisting glumly, as he is faced with sights gruesome and fantastical. He strikes a Peter Sellers-esque figure as Ichabod constantly suggests his wits aren’t quite as keen as he fancies them. Nonetheless Ichabod fights through all his anxieties and limitations and evolves into a classical swashbuckling hero, even if he does still hide behind his girlfriend and faint dead away at the drama’s end. Ricci was just trying to break her way out of her child star mode with his first adult lead, and she’s a bit awkward in the role, particularly as Burton cast her as a complete inversion of her name-making role as the mordant Wednesday in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Burton-derivative The Addams Family films. That said, with her huge eyes contrasting her new blonde locks, Ricci undoubtedly seems perfectly at home in Burton’s world, and presents an interesting blend of innocent romanticism and nascent canniness reminiscent of Sarah Jessica Parker’s role as a swiftly evolving, era-conflating emblem in Ed Wood.
After his relatively lackadaisical action scenes in the Batman films, the action staging in Sleepy Horror represented a leap in craft and ingenuity for Burton – the mid-film fight with the Hessian and the climactic battles are some of the best-crafted scenes of their kind of the last few decades, kinetic whilst completely coherent. The climax commences with Ichabod and the horseman converging on the windmill, where Young Masbath manages to knock Mary out, and Ichabod, Katrina, and the boy try to elude by climbing up through the mill and returning to the ground by riding its sails, whilst Ichabod sets fire to the structure, which explodes as the wafting flour ignites. “Is he dead?” Young Masbath questions as the trio gaze back on the fiery ruin. “That’s the problem – he was dead to begin with,” Ichabod admits, and when the horseman emerges unharmed they flee in Ichabod’s carriage, chased through the haunted forest by the Hessian. This sequence, with its canted camera angles and looming, fearsome imagery, is a particularly triumph for Lubezki, and the highpoint of action staging in Burton’s career, working in elements of wild slapstick amidst the wild, careening struggle as Ichabod tries to keep the horseman at bay long enough to give Katrina and the boy a chance to escape, before the carriage crashes close to the Tree of the Dead.
The idea of blending horror and action is much more familiar now, and whilst Sleepy Hollow didn’t spark a new craze for gothic horror revivalism, it did, along with Jackson’s The Frighteners (1997) and Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999), give directors licence to mate action and horror in interesting and often popular ways: Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002) and sequels, Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2006), Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2005), and Marc Forster’s World War Z (2013) all arguably owe something to Burton’s example as they strove to render once fairly benign manifestations of horror tropes into newly fast, ferocious, and spectacle-friendly creations. The French director Christoph Gans was bolder in building on Burton’s example with his marvellous Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) and Beauty and the Beast (2014), likewise blending lush genre imagery with aspects of swashbuckling and even kung fu. It also kicked off a simmering penchant for movies reconfiguring familiar public domain stories into odd generic blends, manifest in fare like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2010) and Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016). A less than beneficial influence sometimes then perhaps, although I like both those movies.
The actual climactic confrontation is nonetheless close to perfect. After barely surviving the chase, the three heroes are confronted by Mary, who catches up on horseback, and the horseman by the Tree of the Dead. Before the Hessian can behead Katrina at Mary’s command, Ichabod tosses the Hessian his skull. Regaining his complete form and his hellish will, the Horseman picks up Mary and gives her a rather intense kiss – he eats her tongue out of her mouth, and rides with her bloody-mawed into the portal to hell under the tree. Magnificently ghoulish stuff, with a charge of perverse sexuality married to intimate nastiness, redolent of the kind of folkloric horror Burton and Irving reference. Mary’s hand is left protruding from the roots, beckoning in a last gesture of taunting humour, a sight that finally causes Ichabod to black out. Still, a little while later he with new bride Katrina and Young Masbath as servant travel back to New York, where Ichabod pre-writes Leonard Bernstein (“The Bronx is up, the Battery’s down, and home is this way!”) and escorts his new family through the newly cleansed, forward-looking Manhattan streets, all cosmic forces in new if only momentary harmony – man and woman, magic and science, past and future. Whilst it is uneven, it’s precisely for its bold and vigorous juggling act with both the imagery and the ideas of the genre that help Sleepy Hollow remain a rare achievement in modern Horror cinema.
4 thoughts on “Sleepy Hollow (1999)”
A marvelous treatise on a favorite film of mine. The colors of the film make it even more disturbing. A bloody good time.
“A bloody good time.” Ha, well said there Van. It is a damn good-looking film, and I remember how refreshing it felt with so many blandly-shot ’90s films. My incapacity to find it on blu-ray frustrates me.
Great article! I was lucky enough to see this a couple times on its original ’99 run (though too young for Batman sadly and that was the one everyone was crazy for). Shame about Burton now. Looking forward to the next Halloween horror…
Hello Reader, thanks for, err, reading. I wish I’d seen it in the theatre at the time but missed it. As I’ve contended in the past, later Burton, whilst violently uneven, isn’t as bad as many propose – for instance, his most recent, Dumbo, was miles better than the other Disney live-action remakes. Anyway, this will likely be the last Halloween Horror, but at least we’re only halfway through this one.