Sleepy Hollow is like an old boyfriend or girlfriend that you haven't seen in a long time. You notice them across the room and you think to yourself, "Wow, you're fucking HOT now". Or maybe if you're less crass you just think, "You look good..." and then you want to do them. OR if you're not into analogies then understand this: I forgot how good Sleepy Hollow is. Not in a 'this is the best movie ever' way but more like in the pleasantly surprised, hey let's get a cheeseburger and make out kind of way. There I go with the analogies again.
The fact is this, Sleepy Hollow has atmosphere pouring out of its nose.
It's dark and dreary and the leaves are crisp and blowing. Jack-o-lanterns dot the landscape and wispy tendrils of fog weave in and out of decaying trees. Tim Burton may have fallen off the wagon as of late, but Sleepy Hollow is definitely his jam so to speak. This kind of nightmarish, dream world is right up his alley and perfectly fits into his world of ugly sterilization (I will explain what that means later... maybe). Burton isn't my favorite director, but every now and then he falls directly into a spot custom built just for him and something magical happens. That magic is perhaps best represented in Sleepy Hollow.
The legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of those perfect stories that was begging to come to life. Published in 1820, Washington Irving wrote the short story while living in England and based it on a German folk tale. The original story is simple and ends with an implication that the true identity of the Headless Horseman is none other than the other man competing for Katrina Van Tassle's heart--Brom Bones. Poor Ichadbod was chased off the scent by some guy who was apparently really good at riding a horse with his head underneath a cloak. OR maybe it really was the Headless Horseman, who knows.
At any rate, the story was adapted more than a dozen times in various forms. Most notably, the animated adaption called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, a Disney production that surely introduced many of us to the story for the first time. It is Tim Burton's romp however that remains in my head as one of the most wonderful retellings of one of America's earliest examples of fiction.
My favorite thing about Sleepy Hollow is how it combines folklore, the supernatural and the classic theme of betrayal and revenge all into one. One of my biggest pet peeves is when a film establishes an incredibly believable atmosphere that grounds itself in the creepy and then completely throws it out the window by introducing the "real" cause of it all. Whether it be some angry guy who happens to have a large scale and fully operational fog machine in his basement, or a crazy person that likes wearing highly convincing masks, when that reveal happens, all the magic is instantly crushed and my excitement fizzles down into nothingness.
Here however, the Horseman is real, the legend is real, the stories are real. Yes, someone is in charge of "calling" him and is ordering who is to be killed, but the supernatural element still exists and it exists without question. It's the best of both worlds isn't it?
The character of Ichabod Crane is an unexpected hero in everything that he does. Johnny Depp plays him with a superb amount of restraint, turning him into a jittery fellow who seems to be in the wrong line of work.
Indeed, Ichabod in the Irving's original story was a school teacher, while here he is a police constable who is highly interested in autopsies and science yet, cannot seem to stomach the presence of mutilated corpses. He has a fondness for passing out and a mysterious past that is shown to us in fuzzy glimpses.
Burton is quite fond himself of flashbacks to a main character's early existence and here is no different. These flashbacks however are grounded in an extremely thick presence of darkness, complete with iron maidens and torture devices, blood red doors and stark whiteness.
How does one not love this movie again?
Christopher Walken gets his moment of glory by playing the Headless Horseman before he was beheaded and he does it with the right kind of scary that this "demon" needs.
One may be wondering how a Headless Horseman can evoke feelings of fright and wonder and the answer is easy--simply sharpen your teeth into pointy daggers, make your hair fuzzy and wear blue contact lenses. Looking like Christopher Walken helps too of course.
But man, is he scary or what? This flashback into the start of the Headless Horseman's existence is exactly what we need to be entirely terrified of his presence. We know what kind of horrifying demon that body belongs to and plus...he wields an axe AND a sword. Yikes. Also, he's a really bad kisser.
My absolute favorite part however is when our trio of discoverers finds the gateway to hell. The tree where the Headless Horseman was buried underneath and the portal that makes it possible for him to ride once again. This tree is a perfect example of personification--which happens to be one of my favorite things ever. The tree has life and we can tell it does just by looking at it. It is a character in its own right, it's black, in a menacing position and simply seems to spell the word evil. This is amplified to the nines however when Ichabod takes a hatchet to the tree and chops away to find that the tree is filled with blood.
It's almost as if the tree is made of flesh. Grotesque noises insult our ears and Ichabod is splattered with blood.
I mean, a tree that BLEEDS. Best thing ever? I think so.
The thing about Sleepy Hollow that many people do not seem to realize is how graphic it is.
It is, it is! There's so much blood, so many beheadings and even some sex. The blood is the paint red type that Bava would be proud be of. It's harsh redness perfectly accentuates this dream world feeling. Blood is not that red in real life but it works here because Sleepy Hollow doesn't always feel like it is real.
When I used the term, "ugly sterilization" up there, I speak of how oddly sterile everything seems to be. Big, empty spaces of white. Black, block-like landscapes that feel like they are straight out of Adam Maitland's attic and his treasured miniature models from Beetlejuice. But it's ugly--it's so ugly and minimal and awesome.
Sleepy Hollow remains as many people's favorite film to watch during the Halloween season and obviously, this is a sound judgement to make. Like I said, if you want atmosphere then look no further than Sleepy Hollow. Yes, Christina Ricci kind of annoys me in this and Miranda Richardson seems oddly restrained, OH and Jeffrey Jones' wig is way out of control even for that time period--but damn it, I love Sleepy Hollow, I really do.
Yes, Sleepy Hollow and I are definitely getting a cheeseburger later. And then we will make out. Be jealous.
By the way, my favorite director's trademark of Burton's is when he uses the background as a kind of optical illusion, which makes whatever is behind a character almost a part of them.
Christopher Lee with black demon wings? Yes!