Heads Will Roll: Revisiting Sleepy Hollow

With a TV show update currently airing to great praise, Oscar goes back to Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow to give it another look.

After years of movie collaborations, it’s hard to remember a time when Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were celebrated as Hollywood’s most unique and quirky duo. Looking back on Sleepy Hollow, it’s not hard to see why – it’s Burton’s trademark style added to a decent script and very good acting. Now that Burton’s aesthetics have become tired and overdone in today’s media climate, it seems appropriate to look back on Depp and Burton’s better examples to understand why they became such an enduring pair. When their collaboration works, it turns out to be very entertaining.

Ichabod Crane (Depp) is a young New York City police constable in 1799, whose forensic investigation techniques are not considered orthodox, facing prosecution by his seniors. Ichabod with his bag of tools is deployed to the hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, which has been plagued by a series of brutal decapitations, with the most recent victim being Peter Van Garrett (Martin Landau), a wealthy landowner. After arriving, Crane is informed by the town’s elders that the killer is not of flesh and blood, but rather an undead headless Hessian mercenary (Christopher Walken) from the American Revolutionary War, who rides at night on a great black steed in search of his missing head. While boarding in a room at the home of the Van Garretts’ next of kin, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon) and his wife (Miranda Richardson), Crane develops an attraction to their daughter, Katrina (Christina Ricci), much to the resentment of her suitor, Brom van Brunt (Casper Van Dien).

Crane begins his investigation, remaining skeptical about the supernatural elements in the case, even surviving a prank Horseman attack staged by Brom and his men. Later, while questioning the Magistrate (Richard Griffiths) about the nature of the killings, he encounters the Headless Horseman. Riding into the Western Woods with the orphaned son of the Horseman’s fifth victim, young Masbath, Crane and Katrina come across a cave-dwelling, reclusive witch. She reveals the location of the gnarled “Tree of the Dead,” which marks the Horseman’s grave, as well as a gateway to the underworld. Crane discovers that the ground is freshly disturbed and discovers that the Horseman’s skull is missing. He deduces that whoever dug-up and stole it is the person controlling the Horseman. Just then, his ghost bursts out of the tree and gallops towards Sleepy Hollow to claim another set of victims. After interrogating the Notary (Michael Gough), Crane realises that a conspiracy links all of the deaths together. Despite Katrina starting to return his affections, Crane is faced with implicating evidence that would destroy her feelings for him. The Horseman appears at the town one last time to claim the Van Tassels, and Crane is faced with a shocking revelation that forces him to concoct a plan to stop the headless fiend once and for all.

The cast give all round good performances, with Depp providing a fastidious, manic, mildly eccentric performance which is consistently comedic and engaging. A fair step-up compared to some of his more recent roles. Ricci’s turn isn’t particularly amazing, but she does what the script asks of her – look pretty, mysterious or terrified. Gambon brings gravitas and class to the film, handling the Horseman narration nicely, whilst Richardson has an underlying sinister charm as the stepmother. Gough is both creepy and pitiful, Griffiths is suitably gruff as the Magistrate, Steve Waddington and Ian McDiarmid are good with what they have, and even Christopher Lee has a brief appearance as the Borgumaster, and he’s incredible as always. Bringing the part of the Headless Horseman to life is the visceral prowess of veteran stuntman Ray Park, and credit goes to him for giving us a very dynamic warrior. As the living Hessian is Walken himself, who, despite lacking dialogue, is still very enjoyable to watch with his superb body language, sharpened fangs and monstrous screams. Ultimately, both make the Horseman a truly memorable villain.

Burton excels in telling a story through atmosphere and visuals, particularly with the prologue depicting the Headless Horseman’s first murder, setting up the bloody Hammer-style tone and mystery story elements. Many shots are set at night, with familiar Halloween iconography such as scarecrows, pumpkins, shots of a large, luminous Moon, desolate forests, and the cawing of crows. It all builds such a Gothic atmosphere that it’s easy to get sucked in. The town of Sleepy Hollow is dour and desolate, with the shutters slammed against newcomers, and the villagers give unwelcome frowns as the main character enters the town for the first time. The cinematography excels in depicting the clouded, autumnal landscape. Even when Crane enters the Van Tassel mansion and the colour palette warms up to show their apparent hospitality, there is an undercurrent of uncertainty.

The cinematography relishes in the grim and Gothic style, bringing out the very best horror one could hope for in a tale of the Headless Horseman. The score by Danny Elfman is one of his more powerful and operatic contributions; its loud, thunderous and rapidly-paced, adding to the atmosphere as it should. The costumes add another layer, building a very bleak and dilapidated setting. There is an added element of Ichabod having flashbacks to his childhood, remembering his mother and his abusive father, giving yet another stylistic element to the film. These scenes are shot with an eerie sense of whimsy, have a brighter palette, and possess a dreamlike strangeness to them. Once again, without relying on dialogue, Burton can let the visuals convey the character’s emotional history.

The gory elements are done in a very over-the-top fashion, with rampant bloody slayings and rolling heads. You’re almost tempted to laugh at how ridiculous it gets, but it’s never boring. Each beheading is a little bit different in its own way, making for some darkly comedic moments alongside the thrills of the chase. Like the same year’s The Mummy, its not entirely serious in its execution, but rather a concoction of horror elements and its own quirkiness. The late 90’s CGI shows it’s age, but is still used sparingly to maintain the illusion. Easily the best effect is the Headless Horseman himself, where the actor’s entire cranium is rendered invisible, yet he fights as though he can see perfectly. When we reach the climax, the action and set-pieces are hot-blooded and pretty thrilling in and of themselves, and all staged to a high calibre.

At first, it can be a little hard to follow with the various family names and numerous characters, but gradually the script – credited to Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) – becomes more identifiable on repeat viewings. The screenplay allows the audience to work out the mystery alongside Crane, and leaves clues that come up later in the story. At points, it does seem like the culprit’s identity can be easily worked-out, and when the killer is revealed, the entire plot is unveiled as well, motivations and all. As far as clichès go, it seems a bit too on the nose, but one can forgive it because it does lead to a thrilling climax.

In the end, Sleepy Hollow is one of those few films where Tim Burton’s style and ensemble were at their best. It boasts a deliciously atmospheric setting, the right amount of bloody action, and a well-told mystery. Though it does boil down to personal taste; if you can enjoy a great-looking horror movie with little substance to it, then watch Sleepy Hollow. As a Gothic adventure with good leads and ample atmosphere, I think its a fun ride.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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