Halloween Horror: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

As a film adaptation of an early American literary classic—Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is heedless, displaying a wanton disregard for its source material. The adaptation began early in the 1990s, with Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker’s efforts to create a slasher version of the classic story, with schoolmaster Ichabod Crane reimagined as a detective. While the studio eventually altered the direction and brought Burton in to helm the project, elements of the slasher and detective genres remain. Moreover, as he did with his two Batman films, Burton uses the original concept as a springboard for his own interests. The final result is an evocative amalgamation: of not only Irving but also Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, Gothic literature more generally, German Expressionist cinema, and Hammer horror films (Christopher Lee has a small part), with touches of nineties neopaganism and the goth subculture. Like most Burton films, Sleepy Hollow loses steam narratively, but it has such an incredible atmosphere that I can forgive its many shortcomings.     

In Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Ichabod Crane is a lanky, superstitious school teacher who arrives in the small New England village and soon takes an interest in the local beauty, Katrina Van Tassel, and her family’s extravagant wealth. Walker’s screenplay recognizes the essential dynamic, that Crane be an outsider to the tight-knit community, but in the film Crane becomes a New York City detective sent to investigate recent beheadings in the sequestered glen. The adaptation loses the folksy charm of Irving’s original story, but it is still a decent small-town murder mystery.

Johnny Depp plays Crane as a variation of his usual eccentric outsider. The early scenes in New York City show Depp’s pale-faced, black-garmented detective spurned for his then-unusual “scientific” approach to solving crimes. On the job in Sleepy Hollow, Crane refuses to acknowledge the possibility of a supernatural killer in his investigations. The portrayal of Crane as an early rationalist detective recalls Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, but it also indicates the film’s themes of progress versus tradition, and scientific rationalism versus superstition (oppositions which are later oddly set alongside an endorsement of magic, but not religion).

While the film’s initial thematic oppositions connect back to the Enlightenment milieu Irving inhabited, Burton imagines things in more sensational, Gothic terms. For example, flashbacks to Crane’s sadistic Protestant preacher father are filled with Gothic fantasies of medieval torture, such as devices like the iron maiden, which, if they ever existed, did not exist in late eighteenth-century New England. Spectres of Gothic medievalism and seventeenth-century witch hunting populate the film along with second-rate horror movie conventions. While historically inaccurate and foreign to Irving’s tale, such blendings make Sleepy Hollow a lively exemplum of Burton’s interests. Like Beetlejuice’s manic mixture of ghosts, exorcists, and afterlife hooey, Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is much more than a scary tale about the Headless Horseman—it’s a reverie of colonial America and Gothic horror.

If only Burton could combine excellent design with top-notch storytelling. The brilliant prologue—an Americanized re-envisioning of the horror movie opening motif of the stagecoach racing through the night (probably first deployed in 1922’s Nosferatu)—is the highpoint of the film. The early scenes in New York City and Crane’s arrival in Sleepy Hollow are atmospheric and engaging, but as the narrative develops, storylines expand at the film’s expense and the themes become muddled. The mystery plot plays out pretty well, but Crane’s and Katrina’s relationship is reworked into a boring, mechanical love plot (Katrina is played by Christina Ricci, who also starred in the nineties’ Addams Family movies). The backstory about the Headless Horseman is intriguing, but the witches added to the tale pale in comparison to Christopher Walken’s Hessian ghoul (his cameo is uncredited), and sadly, like most supernatural horror movies, the film’s power diminishes with each revelation explaining the nature of the evil at work.

And what is the meaning of the film’s affirmation of Crane’s mother’s white magic, which is shown in bits and pieces in dreams (and rather lamely visualized to be honest)? Is the favouring of magic over religion meant to destabilize or deconstruct the earlier thematic binaries, or does it only confuse them? Whether Romanticism wins out in the end, all this amounts to is an increasingly untidy story that thankfully continues to excel in visual design.

If weak on story, Sleepy Hollow is a triumph of artistic design and the cultivation of atmosphere. Credit should go to not only Burton but also the excellent design team and production crew, led by Supervising Art Director Les Tomkins (The Shining, Cinderella) and renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, Birdman). Danny Elfman’s moody score and the great supporting cast also add a lot to the film. For its look and feel, Sleepy Hollow continues to be one of my personal favourite Tim Burton films.

7 out of 10

Sleepy Hollow (1999, USA/Germany)

Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, screen story by Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker, based on the story by Washington Irving; starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, and Christopher Walken.