When it comes to Tim Burton, there’s a general rule of thumb that I exercise. If his film is based on someone else’s source material, it tends to be of lesser quality, as though he’s trying too hard to shoehorn in his style and vision into something that doesn’t benefit from that. If his film is based on his own ideas, it tends to be an excellent showcase of his imagination and effort. With that in mind, there are exceptions to every rule, and Sleepy Hollow is one of them. It’s much to my surprise and never-ending delight that he found a way to improve on Washington Irving’s classic novella… by scrapping it and starting from scratch. This is one of the few times that approach has ever worked for me, and it’s the only time that approach has worked for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow so far as I’m concerned. And it worked so well.
When it comes down to it, there are four aspects you can credit outright for the success of this film: plot, cast, visuals, and score. The way everything is intertwined, the film comes across as a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. Let’s break this down a bit, shall we?
The plot turns Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) from superstitious rural schoolmaster to New York City constable, championing ideas about forensics and pathology that Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t make famous for another century. With a kick towards destiny in a cameo by none other than the great Christopher Lee (W00T!), Crane arrives in Sleepy Hollow with the mission of proving his advanced methodology to bring down a murderer. The problem: the murders seem to defy the logic of Crane’s methods, and the townspeople are convinced of the supernatural threat of the Headless Horseman.
As the townsfolk are picked off one by one, all signs begin to point to a mortal conspiracy, of which Crane is convinced from the beginning. When he learns the truth of the existence of the Horseman, however, Crane realizes that the deceased Hessian is being controlled to a purpose.
The plot for Sleepy Hollow is simple in its design, but tangled in the number of characters and connections that the audience needs to make. Clues are fired at viewers in quick succession, starting in very first shots and continuing throughout. It can be grasped at the basic level easily, but subsequent viewings peel back layers like an onion. It’s really well-crafted on that front.
The cast is an extraordinary ensemble of top-notch character actors. Led by Johnny Depp while he was still at the top of his game, he’s supported by Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gough, Casper Van Dien, Ian McDiarmid, Richard Griffiths, Jeffrey Jones, and Marc Pickering.
As the Horseman… there’s a two-fer. Headless, the performance and stuntwork is carried off by martial artist and showman Ray Park, best known as Darth Maul from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
Leave it to Tim Burton, however, to find a way to make the Horseman scarier with his head in place. The face of the Hessian is Christopher Walken, made up with contacts and teeth to really punch up the visual.
Which brings us to the second point: the visuals. It wouldn’t be a Tim Burton film without some truly incredible art design. On its surface, the town of Sleepy Hollow looks to be a late 18th century village, as it should. The muted color palette and some well-timed fog add the proper atmosphere really set a tone in terms of both historical nostalgia and Burton-level creepiness. These are in stark contrast to the brightly lit and color saturated dream sequences where Ichabod remembers his past.
The authenticity of the town’s look and feel, I think, lends to the credibility of the more Burtonesque imagery, such as the Tree of the Dead or the various scarecrows. I love it when you can point to something that just screams Burton but still looks perfectly at home in an otherwise realistic period setting.
There are other visual touches some might not notice. For example, each head rolls in a completely unique way. When the sword slices through a neck, you can see the faint traces of smoke and ash where the wound is cauterized by the “devil’s fire.” The flames in the fireplace flare up with demonic faces on screen for a brief moment. The list goes on, adding these little artistic brushstrokes that make an unconscious world of difference.
Something I didn’t make a connection with early on, but it struck me in subsequent viewings, is that Christopher Lee’s cameo actually serves as a point of callback. Burton is heavily influenced here by the old Hammer Horror pictures. Consider that there’s a simple emotion to Sleepy Hollow where most horror films try to add levels of fear in the audience. Here there is simply character fear, and there’s audience joy, neither one of them complex, just as in the old Hammer films. The color palettes mimic the visual treatments on those films as well, from the nearly monochromatic to the eye-popping technicolor. The entire tone of the movie just feels like an homage to Hammer, which is probably a big reason I love this film as much as I do. It’s still got the quintessential flourishes that define a Tim Burton production, but when you pull that back, it’s all Hammer. Or am I just seeing something that isn’t there?
And this brings us to the music. Once more Burton taps his long-time collaborator Danny Elfman, the perfect man for the task. The score for this film is one of my favorites, setting the tone before the film begins, while the production logos are still on screen. There’s a sense of driving urgency for the action sequences, and a sense of Gothic fantasy to the lighter elements. In a way, it feels like a logical evolution of his Batman scores while being its own thing entirely. The thing is, there’s a callback to Elfman’s music with this movie, just as there is to Burton’s filmmaking. If you listen carefully, Elfman’s score is hearkening back to the Bernard Hermann scores that overlay the great Ray Harryhausen epics. Given some of the same fantasy and stop-motion visual elements involved, I find that just an incredible touch that Elfman should try to match that idea on the audio level. It’s a great tip of the hat to the masters of an early generation.
Sleepy Hollow makes its way into my rotation every so often just on account. It stands the test of time the way the classic Hammer and Universal films do. They really don’t seem to make movies like this anymore. It seems like that could be said when this movie was new. But then, that’s always been Burton’s hallmark, to make films like no one else.