When you think of the look of contemporary gothic cinema, I challenge you to come up with a director that will leap more readily to mind than Tim Burton. From BATMAN to the more recent DARK SHADOWS, no director in modern times has done more to establish what our cinema of the macabre should look like. Burton is absolutely our current king of the ‘goth’. Yet when you look at his filmography, there are surprisingly few films that would fall into the Horror genre. Sure, many of his films are dark, brooding pieces, but for the most part, the potential for scares are traded for sweetness. There are few exceptions to this. One exception is his take on Washington Irving’s quintessential American Horror tale, 1999’s woefully underrated SLEEPY HOLLOW.
Ending a period of light activity after MARS ATTACKS and ED WOOD, Tim Burton approached SLEEPY HOLLOW as a classical Horror story from the get-go. He designed and shot the film to recall the famous Hammer Horror films of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The town of Sleepy Hollow was built from the ground up in painstaking detail - the largest set in England at that time. The great Colleen Atwood’s costume designs are authentic, beautiful, and subtly fantastical. The sound design is classic hoofbeats, thunder, and nature. For the score, Burton turned to his long-time collaborator Danny Elfman, who turned in a score full of fear, beauty, and magic - one of his very best.
The cast is also top-notch. Johnny Depp’s Ichabod Crane is in way over his head as the brilliant (if cowardly) inspector from New York City and Christina Ricci is luminous as Katrina, the heiress to the Van Tassel family who might be dabbling in things she shouldn’t. To further solidify the classical credibility of the film, Burton brought in veteran actors from the Hammer film HORROR OF DRACULA. Michael Gough came out of retirement to film his last on-screen role, and Christopher Lee made such a splash in his one early scene that it triggered a late-career renaissance for him. The rest of the supporting cast is stacked with dignified, exceptional actors from both England and America. This lends an enormous amount of gravitas to the tale. And let’s not forget the Horseman. Headless, he is played by Ray Park (most famous as Darth Maul) who’s body-acting in the role is nothing short of astounding - and with head intact, the Horseman is played by the incomparable Christopher Walken, and really, that’s all one needs say.
Although SLEEPY HOLLOW is a fun film with some light moments, it is actually quite a brutal movie. There are 18 decapitations - many of which are depicted unflinchingly. The scene in which the Killian family is terrorized by the Horseman is a genuinely frightening sequence, and there is a fight scene in which the Horseman takes on both Ichabod and Brom that is at once exciting, scary, and gory. There is a lot for the Horror fan to love in this film.
SLEEPY HOLLOW was a departure for Tim Burton. Up to this point, he had given us some gothic masterpieces (BATMAN and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS leap to mind), but they had always been imbued with a light and playful air that tempered much of the darkness. SLEEPY HOLLOW was the first film Burton made in which that light was dimmed, and I suspect that might be the reason it put so many people off when it first came out. It’s too bad, because not only is SLEEPY HOLLOW a great Tim Burton film, it is a worthy adaptation of a classic American story. It is a film that deserves a second look - and may that second look be the first of many more!
SLEEPY HOLLOW fun facts - Ichabod Crane faints 6 times in the course of the film.
The windmill was 5 stories high and weighed several tons. Tim Burton designed it specifically to recall the windmill at the end of FRANKENSTEIN.
Ichabod Crane - “Villainy wears many masks, none of which so dangerous as virtue.”
Lady Van Tassel - “Dear stepdaughter. You look as if you‘ve seen a ghost.”
Baltus Van Tassel - “You are a long way from New York, constable.”