Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Directed by: Tim Burton
Runtime: 1hr 45mins
Review By Zach Owens

Halloween may be over, but before we trade in our Halloween movie favorites for Christmas ones, here’s one last Halloween favorite.

Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” is a peculiar film. It’s not the obvious choice for a movie night around Halloween apparently (I ran polls on Twitter and Google+ that both ended with “Beetlejuice” being named the favorite Tim Burton Halloween film). Yet it might just be the most quintessential Halloween movie of Burton’s career.

It’s more frightening (though admittedly only a little) than his other films. It easily has as much season appropriate imagery as any of his other films, and it’s based on a classic horror story. It also treated us to a terrifically quirky performance by Johnny Depp.  

The story of “Sleepy Hollow” plays loosely with the original source material, though there are certainly nods to it. That source material is, of course, Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” itself based on European Folklore dating back to the Middle Ages. Yet here screenwriters Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker make some intelligent modifications.

The names of most of the characters remain the same. As does the fact that Ichabod Crane (Depp) is from New York but visiting the small village of Sleepy Hollow, though his profession and reason for visiting is entirely different from the original story.

Here Crane is a police constable sent to solve a series of mysterious murders, all of which are decapitations, the locals claim to have been committed by a headless horseman. As he investigates, he finds himself falling for Katrina (Christina Ricci), the daughter of one of the town elders, who also finds herself wrapped up in the investigation. From there Burton and his team of writers do the unthinkable. Rather than try to end on an ambiguous note similar to the short story, they dare to solve the mystery.

But of course a movie wouldn’t be a Tim Burton movie without some sort of supernatural flair to it, and he has plenty of fun with the supernatural here. Nevertheless, what really elevates the film is the style.

“Sleepy Hollow” won an Oscar for its production design and was nominated for its costume design, and rightly so. Burton has always been known for his creative set design and uniquely morbid yet light-hearted approach to storytelling. “Sleepy Hollow” is, like some of his other films, creepy but not scary, dramatic, but not without a sense of humor. The special effects also hold up surprisingly well considering the film is nearly 20 years old, though admittedly they’re more hokey than horror.

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Like the rest of the film, Depp invents his own version of Ichabod Crane, and it’s a good one. He plays Crane as a man driven by science and a will to update the legal system with hard evidence gathered by modern technology rather than accepting speculation and fear. Yet the comedic genius of the portrayal is he also doesn’t quite have the stomach for some the things he encounters.

Had the film come out today we might have judged Depp more harshly for doing another version of his Depp schtick. However, his turn as Ichabod Crane was one of his formative performances that was unique in its time and understated by comparison to performances he would give later.

The film also features a cast full of recognizable performers. Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Casper Van Dien, Christopher Walken, Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid (that’s right, Emperor Palpatine himself), Richard Griffiths, and Jeffrey Jones makes for a very full, very well rounded cast.

The Oscar nominated costume design, that features white powdered wigs and era appropriate attire along with this recognizable set of unique faces gives the film the appearance of a live action version of one of Burton’s animated films.

They’re almost caricatures. Depp’s Ichabod Crane in particular uses a handful of ocular devices fashioned in a steampunk styling. The town itself looks quite a bit like a location from Halloween town from Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas.” The trees look distressed with their disfigured curves and sharp branches. The houses seem to be barely holding together, as if a big enough gust of wind might make them crumble. Burton saps further life from the town by painting it, and those that live there, in a near greyscale pallor.

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There is copious amounts of blood, as you’d expect in a tale of a headless horseman returning to life to chop off heads. But it’s never egregious and never feels like it’s meant to disgust us. In fact, much of the blood is made to look a cartoonish, brighter red color (almost pink at times) as if to protect us from so-called gritty reality (something he did to similar effect in “Sweeney Todd”). Yet the tale is a fantasy, and Burton is excellent at visually rendering fantasy. Even his darker films, like this one, are done in a far lighter mood than your typical horror/slasher film.

The plot twists of the murder mystery manage to intrigue while the well performed characters keep us invested. Nevertheless its Burton’s dedication to establishing mood and atmosphere while bringing this classic tale to life that remains the most impressive thing about “Sleepy Hollow.” It has, for me, become a Halloween classic. It is one of the better Burton/Depp collaborations, and represents some of the best of what they’re capable of.

Dare I say it’s better than “Beetlejuice?” It’s more of a horror film than most of his other films – even if I wouldn’t really describe any of his movies as horror. But we’ll be watching “Edward Scissorhands” and “Nightmare Before Christmas” for a different holiday very soon anyway. “Sleepy Hollow” holds up as my perennial favorite Tim Burton Halloween movie.

4.5 Stars

 

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