Recently, me and a friend of the site, Stu from themanwhosavedmovies.com, decided to do a retro “twin” review. We agreed on a movie we would both write about, so we and our readers can then compare our thoughts and discuss them! The movie we chose is the 1999 Tim Burton masterpiece Sleepy Hollow.
A link to Stu’s review is at the bottom! Enjoy!
New York, 1799. The clumsy and confused, yet sharp-witted Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is a pain in the ass of his superiors, who are not approving of his critical, scientific approach to crime fighting. That’s why he is assigned a very special case in Sleepy Hollow, a small, originally Dutch settlement in Westchester County to get him out of the way. Crane finds out that the case he has to solve is a string of grisly beheadings, which the superstitious townsfolk attribute to the “Headless Horseman”, the, well, headless ghost of a legendary bloodthirsty warrior called “The Hessian” (Christopher Walken) who decapitates his victims while riding a ghost horse and takes their heads with him. Naturally the Constable dismisses this theory as a spooky fairytale which only distracts from the real identity of the killer. Soon he will find out that he is wrong though…
I guess Sleepy Hollow works so well due to a paradox: it’s basically the essential Burton movie in many ways, yet it is missing so many of the idiosyncrasies that bogged down some of his other works. But let’s start from the beginning.
Burton has famously been flirting with elements of Gothic Horror over the whole of his career, from the Goth romance Edward Scissorhands to the dark fairy tale-aspects of his Batman movies and of course, the horror musical/Emo T-Shirt favourite Nightmare Before Christmas. So it’s kind of surprising it took that long that the Robert Smith of Hollywood would finally delve directly into the matter, means to direct a straightforward Gothic horror movie.
Recently, Burton has become considered as somewhat of a sellout for constantly plundering his own oeuvre, completely relying on his “brand” while substance was notably lacking. Looking back, this has actually always been a bit of an issue with Burton though, a reliance on his trademarked quirky style that often steamrolled over the original appeal of the source material, most notably with the Batman movies, Willy Wonka, POTA and to some degree, Mars Attacks. When it does work though, it proves to be pure magic, like in this case.
But that’s not all: The real secret of Sleepy Hollow’s appeal is, as I alluded to above, that Burton found a great balance between his own style and the material he was referencing, not unlike in his true masterpiece, Ed Wood. It seems that he is at his best when he is a) respectful towards the source material and b) sincere instead of quirky-postmodern or whatever you want to call it (Although there is a gentle sense of irony throughout Sleepy Hollow, it isn’t infused with the subtlety of a sledgehammer as in Dark Shadows). And the main influences this time are clearly old Hammer Studio movies (Christopher Lee’s appearance the most obvious hint) and the Gothic horror films by Mario Bava.
Visually speaking, traces of the typical theatrical Burton- artificiality are present, but a more earthy, organic quality was added. The sets might be stylized, yet they still feel like a living, real places with a history. Most of the movie was shot through a blue filter and that simply does still look better than digital colour grading. While the horror elements are playful and a little over the top, they never feel like forced camp and are sometimes even genuinely creepy, the dream sequence involving the iron maiden being a particular highlight. And when the Horseman is chasing a kid to screeching violin music, it bests many more hardcore horror movies in terms of terror.
It’s a surprisingly gory movie as well, a lot of effort has been put into thinking up new creative ways of how to stage and capture decapitations. Every single set piece is a highlight and different to the one preceding it. Unlike on other occasions before, Burton also shows an eye for well-staged, dynamic action, which was missing during the rather sluggish action scenes in his Batman movies. The stagecoach chase might be the best he ever directed in that regard and the decision to let the Horseman move not like a Zombie, but like a dynamic Kung Fu swordsman or Samurai works astonishingly well. What is also -sadly-rather unusual for the director is the feeling that there is an earnest intention to tell a story and create real suspense underneath, not just another exercise in stylistic self-indulgence.
A lot of credit has to be given to the talent Burton surrounded himself with as well. The cast is simply impeccably selected and brings their A-game. Johnny Depp’s antics were still fresh, charming and funny, Christina Ricci nails the mysterious and soulful aspects of her character, while the supporting cast is compiled of brilliant veteran thespians with monumental faces, such as Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, or Michael Gough. Oh yeah, Jeffrey Jones is also there. Ahem.
This eclectic accumulation of talent was matched behind the camera, with Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) as screen writer, F.F. Coppola as producer, Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant) as director of photography and Danny Elfman as the score composer, who delivered one of his finest works. The FX are outstanding, both the practical, as the many lifelike severed heads, and the digital, like the digitally removed head of the horseman and his bafflingly convincing CGI collar.
Sleepy Hollow is a superb example of how to adapt old school entertainment to modern blockbuster sensibilities, mixing horror, action and humour into a stylish, endlessly rewatchable fun ride without a wrong note. A few other movies tried to repeat that but the results were rather embarrassing – see Van Helsing, blahrg. Sadly not even Burton could ever really live up to it again…
And here is some music:
Now check out what Stu from TheManWhoSavedMovies.com has to say about it: Sleepy Hollow- A Look Back