Sleepy Hollow (1999)
I haven’t been a loyal follower of Tim Burton’s career, but the films I have seen from him, I very much do enjoy. Sleepy Hollow is a very pleasant entry in his career, collaborating with Johnny Depp, that strikes the right balance between Burton’s quirky humor and dramatic gothic storytelling. It’s fun, exciting, and scary all at the same time.
Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) of the New York police arrives in the small village of Sleepy Hollow in 1799 to solve a mystery of murders. With all the victims found with their heads missing, everybody in Sleepy Hollow is talking about the ghost of the “Headless Horseman.” He is supposedly out in the woods seeking revenge for his murder many years ago. Crane, believing only in logic, refuses to believe the public’s theory about the horseman and begins his investigations, only to find his faith shattered when he himself encounters the headless horseman. Yet, he is compelled to resolve his investigation after falling deeply in love with the beautiful young Katrina (Christina Ricci). Their fates intertwine as Ichabod attempts to unravel the supernatural and wicked mysteries that threaten everyone’s lives in Sleepy Hollow. It’s a magical tale of sense against myth.
While I think general audiences today are a little worn out on the repeated Burton-Depp collaborations, Sleepy Hollow is an excellent piece of work that’s worth your while. Depp does a brilliant job as Constable Crane. He brings a certain young naivety to the ambitious investigator. He has bold new ideas about using science and intellect to deduce crimes that his superiors lightly dismiss. The contrast of everyone’s grim, fearsome attitudes to Crane’s more upbeat mentality creates an amusing dynamic. Crane is definitely intelligent and educated, but Depp’s clever, delicate balance between the serious and the tongue-in-cheek tone of Crane makes him such a delight. True to the source material, Ichabod is somewhat cowardly, but he can muster up courage when it counts. Beyond all else, he’s determined to resolve this twisting mystery that seems to have an air of conspiracy about it. That’s what makes him a character to invest yourself in. Despite his own trembling fears, he picks himself back up and pushes forward to finish what he began. Depp shows a lot of sweet charm and humor making Ichabod a pure hearted hero that both amuses and inspires.
I will absolutely admit that I once had a fascination with Christina Ricci. She’s a beautiful and highly talent actress who doesn’t shy away from challenging material. What she gives us as Katrina is a lovely, graceful young lady that is indeed bewitching. She carries an ethereal aura about her reflecting Katrina’s depth and purity of soul. Ricci and Depp have a gorgeous chemistry that really lights up the screen, and enraptures an audience with their magic. They are such an excellent fit that I’d love to see more of them together.
At the time of release, it was kept a secret that the Hessian Horseman was portrayed by Christopher Walken. It was an added pleasant surprise when I first saw the film in 1999. Aside from some animalistic grunts as he slays his victims., the Horseman has no lines of dialogue, and doesn’t need any due to how he is portrayed and presented. It was a great idea to tell the Horseman’s story early on to have the bloodthirsty psychotic face embed itself in the audience’s minds. The Horseman filed his teeth to a razor sharp point that made him appear more frightening in his enemies’ eyes. It’s an amazing, ferocious design that sends a chill up your spine, especially in conjunction with Walken’s charismatic physicality. It’s also great that the Horseman is not the ultimate villain, but a weapon used by a treacherous conspirator.
Tim Burton really culled together a magnificent cast with several veterans of stage and screen as well as some fine young talents such as Casper Van Dien. Adding in some Hammer Films alumnus like Christopher Lee and Michael Gough was a very nice touch. Miranda Richardson has a wonderful turn in this film that she seemed very enthusiastic about throwing herself into. Her overall performance is marvelous.
The visual effects of Sleepy Hollow are astonishingly good. Just getting the Headless Horseman to become a reality on screen was a big challenge, I’m sure, and there is nothing but top notch quality on display here. The various decapitations and other gory slayings are phenomenally done. What else would you expect from Industrial Light & Magic? The effects never cease to impress throughout the entire movie. The film has a generous helping of blood and gore to make some squirm or jump in their seats while others will simply relish its exquisite glory. The practical effects are seamlessly integrated with the digital effects for a visually amazing experience. I cannot praise this work highly enough. While there are some silly moments with the visual effects, they are perfectly at home in a Tim Burton movie.
The gothic aesthetics of Tim Burton are realized in a magnificent way. The film has a slightly desaturated, gritty look giving way to a more grim feeling of looming danger. Sleepy Hollow is shot beautifully, strongly maintaining that dark tone of horror and tension. Yet, there are plenty of picturesque sequences, such as a series of dreams Ichabod has which further enrich the fantastical, and sometimes, enchanting aspects of the movie. This truly is a visually gorgeous film in a style that could only come from the imagination of Tim Burton. And of course, Danny Elfman created a powerfully grandiose score that fits perfectly with Burton’s gothic stylings. It is a stunning, sweeping piece of work that enhances all the dark, lovely, and magical atmospheres of Sleepy Hollow.
This movie really is a lot of fun. Burton doesn’t take it too seriously as he applies his own dark comedy to the more violent, gruesome moments. So, while the Horseman is chasing down and chopping off the heads of hapless victims, there’s usually a humorous quirk in there, but Burton keeps it in check. He never allows it to compromise the dramatic integrity of the story, and instead sort of does it at Ichabod’s expense, which is entirely fitting. Said story has plenty of mysterious aura and thrilling moments of tense horror and suspense. The Horsemen, head or no, is very scary and intimidating. He’s mercilessly violent and very smart. There are superbly executed plot twists that are never cheap. This is a smartly crafted screenplay which weaves its way around these solidly conceived characters. The secrets and manipulations abound under the surface of this quiet village make for a fertile ground for this sort of story. How everything is unraveled in the end is quite wicked.
That said, this has a hell of a great climax with plenty of fiery action and dramatic revelations. Characters are kept in serious peril as it becomes a race to save lives while the Horseman in unleashed once again. Action and suspense build up to a highly energetic and exciting level, and the pay-off is quite ironic and fitting. It is all very satisfying tying up all the plot and character threads with that classic Tim Burton wit and charm.
This is a beautifully crafted film in every aspect. It’s a visual masterwork backed by an excellent script written by the deeply talented Andrew Kevin Walker with a story co-developed by Kevin Yagher. The latter of the two also worked on the creature effects here, and doing a remarkable job at it, too. There are many tried and true Tim Burton talents who were involved with this film which instilled it with an amazing depth of artistry and talent. The film definitely delivers on exciting tension and fearsome scares with a light air of dark, quirky humor. It also weaves an enchanting love story through its haunting and startling mystery. I really, really like Sleepy Hollow because, beyond everything else, it’s just a fun watch with plenty to take pleasure in. This is truly one of Tim Burton’s finest outings, and I’m glad that Johnny Depp was along for the ride. They both do a brilliant job through every frame of this film. I give Sleepy Hollow my full recommendation. It’s more than worth your while.