Combined Rating: 3.75/5
In one of Tim Burton’s most beautiful films, Johnny Depp is out of his Depp as a foppish New York City police scientist out to disprove supernatural explanations for murders blamed on a headless horseman (Christopher Walken)…who romps through the quaint village of Sleepy Hollow at the end of the Eighteenth Century, lopping off more heads than can fit in an inflatable duffle bag. While peripheral American villages of the post-colonial period are notorious for clinging to their superstitions, Burton’s film stops short of condemning them as backward. Instead, he wisely makes an argument that although fancy city folk do not always agree or understand, science and logic can coexist with viable supernatural phenomenon elicited by those given over to transcendent forces. That Icabod Crane has a backstory that justifies his dismissal of spiritualism only makes his discoveries more surprising. Crane must race to discover if the murders are connected, and if so, for what purpose? But don’t let his tedious (and at times confusing) genealogical musings dissuade you…the creepy action and lush, fog shrouded set pieces are more than enough to keep the viewer mesmerized.
Sleepy Hollow is like watching a moving painting. Spatterings of red are punctuated by the perpetual dreariness of a town constantly on the cusp of dusk. Death is dealt brutally…almost comically, and met with measured raise of en eyebrow. Heinous acts are committed so frequently and dizzyingly in such a confined space that it’s truly a wonder there are any townspeople left by mid-film. And all the while Icabod pieces together clue after clue, whilst dodging the horseman’s razor sharp sword on its seemingly random war path. But is it indeed random? And is the bumbling Crane’s survival coincidental? Our grand scheme eventually emerges, but only after Crane comes to terms with his own false assumptions. He must fully embrace ALL possibilities of the rational and seemingly irrational, to be most effective in his final task of not only solving the murders, but sending our infamous Hessian back to hell for good.
Burton infuses the film with an intentionally risky dose of self-awareness. The actors perform as if they were in a live theater workshop, which actually serves to deescalate the otherwise gruesome violence and save the viewer from any lingering horror effects. It basically feels like a fairy tale for warped adults of 1999, or, if you like, modern day desensitized children. Either way, the tone works. He would duplicate it in subsequent films like From Hell and Sweeney Todd, and cement his status as auteur of the weird. Depp’s mannered Burton-helmed performances would metastasize into the realm of cringe-worthy parody in later years, but that was probably more a result of his living in France for an extended period of time. We all can get a bit self-indulgent for a spell. But don’t miss his turn here, where all the pieces come together into what could be considered a big-budget homage to the Hammer horror pics of old, complete with a deliciously campy Walken cameo and other magical, memorable images that get seared into our modern Halloween zeitgeist.
Despite the fact that I’ve read the original story upon which the film was based (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving), I watched the first season of the now off the air TV series “Sleepy Hollow,” and I was present at least once while this film was playing, you’d think I’d know the story. But no, turns out I remembered only one thing: that it involved a headless horseman who liked to ride around upstate New York lopping off heads. While this is a horrific idea, and I don’t generally care for horror, I didn’t find it particularly disturbing because the film seemed so self-aware. I’d have called it bad acting, except that it seemed intentional, as if the actors were purposely not taking themselves or the story too seriously. (I suppose the tongue-in-cheek tag line on the movie poster implies this: “Heads Will Roll.” Ha. Literally.)
The story follows Ichabod Crane (a very mannered, effeminate Johnny Depp), a police constable called from New York City to Sleepy Hollow in the late 1700s to investigate the recent rash of mysterious murders by decaptitation in which the heads all vanish. We’re given a clue about the reason for this at the very beginning, when we see the man who is to become the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken), himself decapitated and his head separated from his body in burial. At first it seems that he kills indiscriminately, but then he kills one victim while leaving Crane himself unharmed. This leads Crane to two conclusions: first, that the headless horseman exists (which he’d doubted before), and second, that someone is dictating who his victims should be. In his investigations, Crane encounters the elders of the small town (including two future Harry Potter cast members, which made me happy: Michael Gambon, aka Dumbledore, and Richard Griffiths, aka Vernon Dursley. But I digress.) Baltus (Gambon) is the father of love interest Katrina (Christina Ricci), who reminds Crane of his late mother because both practiced witchcraft. Crane manages to bungle nearly every aspect of the investigation, accusing a variety of people falsely before each turns up dead, and eventually even suspecting Katrina because he misunderstands the intentions of her magic. But at last, in one of those tell-all moments at the end in which the villain feels the need to disclose all secrets prior to finishing the deed, we understand the who, the what, and the why… and also, at last, how to stop a killer who’s already dead. (Hint: there’s a reason why he’s collecting his victims’ heads!)
The body count in “Sleepy Hollow” was gratuitous to the point of comedy, and I presume that was intentional, because it rendered it far less grisly than it might have been otherwise. There was only one scene at the very end where I had to look away. Otherwise, it’s a pretty good compromise Halloween film, striking a balance between atmospheric and creepy on the one hand, and campy on the other.
Meal Pairing: Chunky beef stew with a big loaf of french bread. Don’t think too hard about what that symbolizes.