Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) at the tree of death. "Sleepy Hollow."

Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker; screen story by Kevin Yagher & Andrew Kevin Walker; based upon the short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. Produced by Scott Rudin, Adam Schroeder. Music by Danny Elfman. Photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki. Edited by Chris Lebenzon, Joel Negron. Production designed by Rick Henrichs. Starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Christopher Lee.

Sleepy Hollow is a horror movie that does a masterful job of supplying dread, tension, atmosphere and a delightfully skittish performance by Johnny Depp. And then it forgets to actually bring the horror. The pieces are all here for an effectively told ghost story, but all those pieces seem curiously removed from what should be the story’s centerpiece: the Headless Horseman. You’d think that the subject matter of a decapitated murderous corpse on horseback would be easy to turn into a horror movie, but you would guess incorrectly…or perhaps I should say you would miscalculate director Tim Burton’s apparent interest in such a thing. And you would also overestimate the creativity of Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay, which takes pains (too many, in fact) to render the Horseman into an axe-wielding MacGuffin. Not often can you honestly say that the Disney cartoon version of this material is more frightening.

It’s not that I fault Burton and Walker for overhauling the entire structure of Washington Irving’s classic short story, since Irving’s quick prose would not necessarily be able to justify a full-length feature film. Nor do I fault them for transforming Irving’s character of Ichabod Crane from an odd-looking schoolteacher into an easily-frightened detective with a fondness for the newborn field of forensics—in fact, I celebrate that achievement. However, I think Burton and Walker selected the wrong mode to retell this story when they decided to yoke it to a labyrinthine murder mystery, because it imposes a strict logic onto the proceedings that horror stories usually do well to avoid, and for good reason. Horror, as a genre, typically draws power from its ability to persuade us that there is a buried and incomprehensible world co-existing with our own, and the more rules we are given about its behavior, the more that aspect is lost. By the time we get to the “exciting” conclusion of Sleepy Hollow, the Horseman has been demoted from a specter of a terror to a walking, slashing plot device, and that is not scary.

That is truly a shame, because so much of the movie is well-done that it should be seen. As an on-again, off-again admirer of Burton’s work, I think here he serves his strengths as a director. We get an opening sequence that honors the tradition of Hammer Horror films, where Victorian values raise demons that feast upon private venalities. And gradually we get the icons of horror, all lovingly photographed: not just dead bodies and ghastly Jack-O-Lanterns, but secretive parchments, dripping wax seals, thunderstorms, ominous farmlands, forests of dead trees, violent carriage rides, dungeons, a cameo by Christopher Lee…it goes on. This is a gorgeous-looking film (photographed by Emmanuelle Lubezki) that captures the feel of an oppressive, cold, dread autumn, and borrows heavily from silent film traditions in how it tells its story almost entirely with images—heavily stylized images that could never possibly be realistic, but ones that are instead persuasive in their outright fantasy. At times, the film’s color palette darkens and thins to such a degree it is obvious that Burton and Lubezki are together yearning for the magic spell of black and white.

That starkness underlines the story, and for a while it works. We meet constable Ichabod Crane (Depp) and see him dispatched to upstate New York as punishment for his rabble-rousing attempts to join detection with science. We see him arrive at Sleepy Hollow as an unwelcome visitor, although the reigning burghers and councilmen do their best to seem pleasant. He gets briefed on the supernatural goings-on, in one of those delightful drawing room scenes where all the splendid character actors (Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough) growl, intone and generally attempt to upstage each other. We see Ichabod on the case as he investigates Sleepy Hollow’s decapitations, with the skulls all missing (“Taken! Taken back to hell!”). He inspects the dead bodies with bizarre tools from his satchel, and shows himself to be squeamish around rotting flesh, and he’ll encounter a lot of it as he digs up graves, conducts autopsies, etc. And there’s a sweet little love story thrown in between Ichabod and the fragrant Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci). Good, good, all good.

But ultimately Burton’s superior instincts are undone by the story, which, in its attempt to reconceptualize thin material, overthinks the matter and piles on way too much. One of the key building blocks to successful horror is restraint and escalation. Those steps are utterly missed here: instead of keeping the Horseman offstage and delaying our payoff for as long as possible (payoffs are usually boring, anyway) Sleepy Hollow brings him in early, and inexplicably tells us his backstory first, in a flashback sequence where the Horseman (Christopher Walken) is shown to be a Hessian mercenary with bloodlust who met a grisly fate. Fine, fine…but why do we have to see it? No matter how much the screenplay tries to establish the Horseman as a monster even before he died, when we see him we think of a human being first, and a vengeful spirit second. That feels like a mistake.

It is a miscalculation that creeps its way into the main portion of the narrative, because while we see a lot of the Headless Horseman, he is never frightening. Part of that is due to the ungainly plot mechanics, and another part is due to the direction and acting (body by Ray Park)—we want to believe in the Horseman, but once we get a look at him, we cannot. He is too tangible, too predictable, and overall too reminiscent of exactly what he is: an actor with his head buried under a costume, clomping around a set. Added to this is Burton’s unwise decision to give the Horseman an repertoire of body language that seems at odds with this material: he doubles double takes, twirls his weapons, dismounts his horse with a heavy thud, and in the climax catches his own skull when it is thrown at him, in a moment that borders on laughable. The Horseman performance (by Park and the riding doubles) has little presence, and his every action feels labored, rather than the effortless act of a horrific entity. This leaves a gaping hole where our supernatural menace should be.

It is possible that Burton was never seriously interested in a true horror movie, which may be why much of the film lends itself so openly to black comedy, with perhaps even a hint of satire. But what is being satirized? And why isn’t it consistent throughout the picture? Certainly Depp’s performance as the dainty Ichabod is a hair away from self-parody, and is certainly part of the overall joke, but the atmosphere seems to want us to take everything seriously. You almost get the sense that Burton intends to do for gothic horror pictures what Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers did to war pictures: send-up the genre so subtly that extra joy can be extracted from the audience members who insist on taking it seriously. That’s welcome, but I think what ultimately hamstrings the film is that Burton isn’t as good as subverting his material as he is at setting it up—he basically leaves the kooky stuff to Depp, so in the end the two approaches aren’t complementary. Instead, they are at right angles to each other.

Since Sleepy Hollow is a mystery, it is a difficult movie to truly summarize without spoilers. Really, the easiest way to talk about the shape of the plot is to not talk about it at all. So let it be said that the screenplay’s mystery is rather ingenious in its logic, and sets up clues beforehand that are nicely buried within (a) scenes that claim to be about something else entirely and (b) a story that we only gradually realize is going to have clues at all. But the fact that the mystery is pretty airtight is actually part of the problem—here Walker outsmarts himself by creating a murder plot with such diabolical precision that the supernatural climax feels less like horror and more like housekeeping (and has a vaguely self-congratulatory air). The scene is not helped by the ultimate villain, who plays completely by the principle of the Talking Killer (Roger Ebert’s observation of a character who captures the hero and then gleefully explains their plot when really they should be putting the hero in the ground). I won’t be as indecent as to suggest who this ultimate villain is, but I will say the actor goes into full honey-baked ham mode by film’s conclusion, and it is a bad choice.

The love story is also problematic, feeling dictated by the plot and not by any great passion between the two leads, Depp and Ricci. Both are fine actors, but they have no chemistry together, and Ricci struggles with overwrought lines like “Goodbye, Ichabod Crane. I curse the day you came to Sleepy Hollow.” I actually like the character of Katrina, conceptually, quite a bit. She is both childlike and sensual at the same time, a dichotomy that sounds unnecessarily creepy but works unreasonably well, and sounds a note that recalls the life of Edgar Allan Poe, which Sleepy Hollow can be seen as a sideways tribute to: detectives, gothic secrets, supernatural menaces, fates worse than death… There’s also a hint of H.P. Lovecraft within the film’s stabs at mythology and hidden evil, and again, those influences could have been worked better into a screenplay that wasn’t so unbecomingly fastidious.

Despite all these flaws, there’s a lot to enjoy about Sleepy Hollow. The Depp performance is marvelous, especially in how it turns every encounter with the locals into a comedy of manners, and even by film’s end he’s more than willing to use his loved ones as human shields. And the settings are chilling, and the atmosphere deliciously bleak. And you really can’t hate a movie that has this exchange:

“We’re looking for the tree of death.”

“How will we find it?”

“Without great difficulty, I fear.”

But I just can’t help feel that Burton’s work here is a near-miss. It’s a great setup paired with a lot of misaimed pay-off, and in the end provides answers when what we should get is unease. For all of Sleepy Hollow‘s literary inspirations, its end result owes less to Irving or Poe but to the hollow conventions of Hollywood Filmmaking 101. If only it had been better. Or maybe if only it had been legitimately worse. Anything other than committing the cardinal sin of getting us excited with a great opening, and then letting us down. Sleepy Hollow, in fact, uncannily resembles a victim of the headless horseman: it’s well-dressed, but I just can’t tell where its head is at.

GRADE: C+

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2 thoughts on “Sleepy Hollow (1999)

  1. Alan Nowicki October 11, 2011 / 4:52 pm

    I’m in complete agreement with your review. Burton is a master of the imaginative visual, creating iconic movie characters and environments. His biggest issue has always been his story. Never has there been a director that proves how important the screenwriter is for a film. This movie ends up being one of his many examples. The picture looks great and makes me long for the Hammer days of horror, but stumbles on many plot points. I laughed at the “Disney cartoon version of this material is more frightening” while sadly agreeing. Another point I agree with is the telling of the backstory for the horseman. Burton did this in his “Wonka” as well. This completely takes away the mystery of the character. There is much more fear (or wonder in Wonka’s case) in a person or entity we know little about. This film hit so many right notes and fell flat on it’s face with so many other.

    • saberdance October 16, 2011 / 9:14 am

      Absolutely. I think you’ve explained it in words better than mine. Burton has always been an impressive stylist, but has frequently come up short in terms of marrying that style to a story we can truly care about. Sleepy Hollow feels, in some respects, like the most egregious offender in that regard, since the film tries so hard to set you up for horror, and then forgets to pay off any of that.

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