Sleepy Hollow, 1999.
Directed by Tim Burton.
Starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien and Christopher Walken.
In the year 1799, New York police constable Ichabod Crane is sent to the small village of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a spate of grisly decapitations all seemingly committed by the supernatural Headless Horseman.
One of the most famous Gothic horror stories is Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a tale in which a small town is haunted by the sinister spectre of The Headless Horseman. The story has been adapted to stage and screen many times over the years, ranging from animated family-friendly outings to, most recently, as a TV horror show/police procedural with a gun-toting horseman. Although, for my money (and perhaps most people) the definitive adaptation came via Gothic horror aficionado Tim Burton and his immensely fun Sleepy Hollow.
Burton regular Johnny Depp takes on the lead role of the curiously named Ichabod Crane, an eccentric police constable whose unorthodox methods might be the future of crime-solving. Depp excels in the role, his performance being the perfect balance of deductive brilliance and quirky charm that allows you to empathise with the character without his exaggerated mannerisms being so overblown to the point of irritation.
Of the supporting cast, Burton assembles a raft of familiar faces who all excel at creating a shady and shifty bunch hiding more than receding hairlines under those ridiculous wigs. While it is hard to pick a stand out, it’s the brief appearance from horror stalwart Christopher Lee as a Judge who sends Crane to the titular town that lingers longest. While it’s only a short scene, Lee’s fearsome presence and deep booming voice command your attention, making you sit up and take notice while you quake in your boots.
As the Horseman in his pre-headless days (The Headed Horseman?) Christopher Walken delivers a short but memorable performance, snarling and screaming through shark-like teeth with a blue-eyed stare that peers into your very soul. It’s not a role that requires much of Walken, but his frightening magnetic presence certainly makes it worthwhile. However, props must be given to Ray Park (perhaps best known as Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace) who portrays the Horseman for much of the run-time. His martial arts skills ensuring that the supernatural slayer is a force to be reckoned with in the intense and exciting fight sequences.
The cinematography is fantastic, the de-saturated colours that give the film an almost black and white look while simultaneously allowing for the few bright colours to pop out, particularly the gushing bloody reds that often splash Depp’s queasy face. The production design is breathtaking, the titular town beautifully realised by an elaborate set that is utterly believable as a late 18th-century American town, its dingy alleyways, rickety creaking bridges, mucky streets making it feel almost like a character itself. The Tree of the Dead from which the Horseman emerges is a standout piece of set design. Its nightmarish branches appearing as limbs on some horrific monster, a notion confirmed by the bloody spurts that erupt when Depp takes an axe to it. These are sets I would have loved to have seen more of. I just wish they were still standing in some form so that I could go and visit and live out my dreams of solving a supernatural murder mystery.
The overall tone and style of Sleepy Hollow are akin to the classic horrors that inspired Burton, with the film featuring a handful of nice little nods. The visual style is reminiscent of the classic Universal Monster films, with the high levels of gore (at least for a Tim Burton film) and implied sexuality (along with the casting of horror luminaries like Lee) being very much in the vein of the more adult Hammer Horrors. While it still has moments of his oddball humour, Sleepy Hollow is among the directors darkest films. It’s runtime filled with nightmarish flashbacks to Ichabod Crane’s traumatic childhood witnessing his mother being murdered in an Iron Maiden and even going so far as to imply that the Horseman decapitates a small child in one scene.
The action sequences are where the fun lies, the fights between the Horseman and our heroes being among my personal favourite parts of the film. A three-way fight between the Horseman, Depp and Casper Van Dien is an intense highlight, with the Horseman’s ferocious swordsmanship making you take a sharp intake of breath every time he swings his blade. The finale is easily the high point as Crane and the Horseman battle each other atop a carriage charging through the dense forest. It’s an electrifying climax with the terrifying and impressive work by the stunt team keeping you on the edge as they jump back and forth between the carriage, the Horseman’s steed, often while being dragged behind one of the two.
With a superb visual style, fantastic production design, intense set pieces and great performances from the cast, Sleepy Hollow ranks as one of its notoriously weird directors best films and arguably one of the most enjoyable and fun horror films out there. Check it out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★