Good Afternoon, Hopeful Hessians of Horror!
Sleepy Hollow was Tim Burton's eighth big-scale directorial effort. Prior to this film, he'd given us Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! Looking back at Burton's earlier oeuvre, I've come to realize that I really preferred his small-scale films to his bash at blockbusters. In fact, I still maintain that Ed Wood is his best film to date, a picture that has barely any special effects at all. Well, no good ones anyway. Which, in retrospect, I guess is kinda the point.
So, where does Sleepy Hollow stand before the visual maestro went off the rails with his disastrous remake of Planet of the Apes? Let's dive in after we have a 'boo' at the film's trailer:
Heh, heh...'Boo'. See what I did there?
OooOooo, pretty shpooky, huh?
As self-evidenced by the trailer, every square centimeter of the 16:9 frame is chock-a-block with Burton's unique visual flair. But does it get in the way of telling a good story? Yes, but it's not worth throwing the goth baby out with the murky bath-water.
Burton starts off by playing fast and loose with Washington Irving's classic short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow". In this version Ichabod Crane isn't a lanky and homely school master. No, instead he's incarnated as the very pretty Johnny Depp, but at least the film-makers had the decency to retain the character's craven ways and penchant for fainting spells.
Also, Crane isn't a dorky teacher here, he's a dorky police constable, who tries to use investigation, evidence collection and deductive reasoning to solve crimes, much to the derision of his peers. Although I'm a bit put out by the decision to make Ichabod a cop, it certain does give Burton lots of opportunities to splatter the squeamish Depp with copious amounts of stage blood. His reactions to the unexpected spurts of gore alone are priceless.
So, in a test of his abilities, Crane's superiors dispatch him to a tiny settlement "two days journey to the north in the Hudson Highlands" called Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of grisly murders. When out not-so-intrepid hero gets there he's horrified to discover that a handful of villagers have been decapitated and their heads have been pilfered.
Crane's unconventional techniques and unrelenting disbelief instantly put him at odds with the town's elders, who are convinced that the murders are being committed by a vengeful, spectral Horseman who's hella-pissed to be missing his own noggin. Our hero remains skeptical until he has his own encounter with the ghoul. This episode generates considerable sympathy from Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the young daughter of wealthy farmer Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon).
Man, you know you've dealing with fantasy when you can use the words "wealthy" and "farmer" in the same sentence together.
With the aid of Young Masbeth (Marc Pickering) who's own father has been claimed by the Horseman, Crane is able to track the specter through the appropriately creepy Western Woods to the Tree of the Dead. It's here that we discover the Horseman's restless grave, his portal to the material world as well as his fine collection of cropped craniums. After some convoluted skullduggery, the Horseman's true puppet-master is revealed, leading to the final confrontation.
Sleepy Hollow is an above-average accomplishment in Burton's early resume. Although barely resembling the original story which inspired it, it's a spirited, rousing entertainment with a devilish streak of coal-black humor. It's also one of the most artistically convincing films in the director's accomplished portfolio.
Just in terms of production design, the film is a tremendous achievement. From the turn of the century depiction of New Your City, to the gray cedar gothic look of Sleepy Hollow itself, the film's visual palette is always trying to impress. Although clearly a soundstage, the set used to depict the Western Woods is completely evocative of the scary forests we've all had nightmares about as impressionable children.
Burton and his creative team also come through with some fabulously authentic interiors, filled with old books, rustic furnishings and freaky-looking implements of bloodletting. Crane's amusing array of "scientific" instruments are also comedically over-elaborate, clearing showing the director's influence.
The film's visual effects are top-notch. The frequent decapitations are carried off with gusto, no more so then the intense spin action generated by Magistrate Philipse's demise. Even though we kinda see Christopher Walken nowadays in a more comedic light, back in the Nineties he was often cast as the nutcase-du-jour. With his crazed fright wig of black hair, rat-like teeth and eyes like Stephen Harper, his makeup job as the Headless Horseman is still deeply unsettling:
The headless effect is also a digital triumph. Even though Ray Park's body and movements don't quite match up to Walken during the flashbacks, the illusion of a decapitated body doing flourishes and participating full-bore in sword fights is perfectly realized and more then just a little trippy.
Although it could be argued that the Horseman is merely the sum of his black leather armor, Darth Maul style blade-twirls and Walken's pop-eyed growling, he does still cut a pretty imposing figure. Witness the scene in which the Headless Avenger comes to claim the melons of the Killian family. Between the eerie kaleidoscopic lighting, the demonic fireplace and the sheer unrelenting viciousness of the Horseman's assault, scenes like this are the stuff of nightmares.
Tim Burton isn't often thought of as an action director, but his experience with the Batman films must have had some sort of positive effect. By the time the plot is finished spinning out in the last reel, the film turns itself over to relentless action. Soon we're trying to catch our breaths as we witness a three-way duel with the Horseman under a covered bridge, a dust-up at a decrepit windmill and a pretty hairy horse-n'-coach chase through the haunted woods. Keep in mind that in 1998, CGI was used very sparingly and mainly as a tool to augment a scene. The practical stunts and effects on display here (including one in which Depp himself is dragged behind a team of horses) are still completely convincing, even when viewed in high def.
Depp is great in the film. His take on Ichabod Crane is certainly true to character, with plenty of bluster and prissiness mixed with in the squeamish qualities of a prepubescent girl. He's like a sissified version of Inspector Abeline in From Hell. Christina Ricci is hypnotic, even if her accent veers around a bit. It still freaks me out when older guys lust over her in this film; she was only nineteen at the time and Depp was almost twice her age. When I hear the crude comments I can't help but think: "Hey, asshole, that's L'il Wednesday Addams yer talkin' about! Cool it, youse pervs!"
Miranda Richardson pulls double duty as Lady Van Tassel and the Witch in the Woods. In my scientific opinion: she steals this movie. Her ability to appear regal, terrifying, malicious and delightfully poker-faced in quick succession is unparalleled. In a lesser film young Marc Pickering would have been relegated to the role of annoying prat, but mercifully orphan kids in a Tim Burton film are afforded more opportunities. As Young Masbath, Pickering is appropriately dour, well-spoken when he needs to be and determinedly heroic.
Then you have what amounts to an on-screen rally for the Legion of Awesome British Actors. Audiences will have a blast spotting Michael "Alfred Pennyworth" Gough as Notary Hardenbrook, Michael "Dumbledore" Gambon as Baltus Van Tassel, Richard "Uncle Vernon" Griffiths as Magistrate Philipse, and Ian "Emperor Palpatine" McDiarmid as Doc Lancaster. Shots with all of them together in the same scene are nothing short of awe-inspiring to this lowly viewer, as I'm sure it was for the director as well. This platoon of well-worn, expressive faces is put to good use in the film, displaying a super nova reserve of veteran acting talent at a moment's notice.
And as if that wasn't enough we're also treated to cameos by the great Christopher Lee as the "Burgomaster" and Martin Landau as Peter Van Garrett. Man, it's fun watching a film made by an obvious film nerd.
A few minor things do aggravate me about the flick. The "whodunnit" story is so murky and confusing that it actually works to my advantage; every time I re-watch the film I've completely forgotten how it ends. I'm also peeved that they made Crane a forensic cop (?) instead of the traditional teacher. It certainly would have made his initial behavior and more believable and his story arc more dramatic. And to this day I still can't figure out why Peter Van Garrett and the sentry leave perfectly good cover (an enclosed carriage and a sniper hut respectively) when attacked by the Horseman other then to willing place their heads on his mobile guillotine. But this is just a small patch of irritating burrs stuck to the world's prettiest sweater.
Sleepy Hollow is an evocative, moving canvas of sepia-dream/nightmare imagery. It stands up to repeat viewings as one of the finest depictions of a Fairy Tale ever committed to film. Beautiful and fun.
Out of five. Tilt: up.