Sleepy Hollow (1999) — Head and shoulders above the myth

“The Horseman comes! And tonight he comes for you!”

Andie’s rating: Doesn’t Christina Ricci look horrible as a blonde?

Andie’s review: Sleepy Hollow is Tim Burton’s stab at the old Headless Horseman legend. It is a far cry from the Disney cartoon of the same name, which in my opinion is pretty dumb. This version is dark, kinda scary, kinda funny, and definitely a great update of the ancient story.

When Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent from New York to little Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of beheadings, he is certain that the “headless horseman” theory that the townspeople possess is ludicrous. He figures there has to someone of flesh and blood hiding behind the legend and committing these crimes. He becomes the town’s constable/coroner/private investigator while staying at the Van Tassel home, the wealthiest family in town. Their daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci) becomes quite fond of Ichabod and aids him in his quest for the truth.

The movie goes on to have more beheadings and Ichabod uncovers a conspiracy amongst the towns elders. I don’t want to give it away, because it is quite interesting how it all unfolds. What I want to say is how wonderful I thought this movie was. The atmosphere and costumes are fantastic, I truly felt that I was in 19th century upstate New York. I also loved the music of Danny Elfman, it really helped in setting the mood.

Sleepy Hollow was also much funnier than I expected it to be. I don’t mean that I was laughing at it, but rather I was laughing with it. It had quite a few moments of surprising humor and it was then that I remembered Tim Burton was behind it. I also thought it had some good scares, especially the witch who lives in the woods and Christopher Walken as the headless horseman, with his wild eyes and pointed teeth. That was a casting stroke of genius. I don’t think anybody else could’ve quite looked the part as well as he did.

The flashbacks to Ichabod’s childhood were a little weird and trippy, I wasn’t too crazy about them. The actor playing young Ichabod was kinda scary looking, his eyes were way too big for his face. But Lisa Marie was gorgeous as Ichabod’s mom-cum-witch. Overall, a very entertaining movie, I think it’s one of Tim Burton’s best to date.

Justin’s rating: Dude, I want those flip-glasses!

Justin’s review: Okay, first of all, whoever hired Christopher Walken to play the Headless Horseman deserves all kind of rewards and shiny metals. That’s as inspired as can be — is there any other person alive who can pull off a barbaric German mercenary with sharpened teeth who hacks off heads during the Revolutionary War? And then still be just as menacing sans noggin?

Tim Burton was really never meant for widespread acceptance. This is a director who’s natural element is Halloween, and he seems to thrive in the spirit of that holiday, much like an eternal giddy ten-year old who delights more in the fake-scary atmosphere than the gobs of candy. While I’d rather have Burton design a personal haunted house for my use, having him conduct movies in his quirky gothic style is a more than acceptable second. As in A Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice, the world of Sleepy Hollow is artistically constructed of a palate of moody greys, rich decay, and twisted landscapes. Accompanied by the ominous tones of Danny Elfman, it is a world that begs to be explored.

Based off of one of the first American horror tales by Washington Irving circa 1820, Sleepy Hollow might’ve been nothing more than a skimpy urban legend about a teacher, a horse, and a fellow that’s invented a radical new weight loss program inspired by those wacky French. The actual story contains enough plot to perhaps fill a light pamphlet, and so a little padding was necessary.

Murder, murder most foul, is afoot (but not ahead) in the 18th century New England town of Sleepy Hollow. This popular tourist destination is in the midst of some haunted woods where the Blair Witch likes to vacation in winter. Naturally, this is not optimal for the townsfolk, who are forced to live like it’s October 31st every day. Unfortunately, they’re just not as much into Halloween as Tim Burton.

When a rash of mysterious deaths crop up, forensically-motivated constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) strolls in, convinced that science can explain the unexplainable. Crane really became a cop for the opportunity to mess around with dead bodies, which he exhumes and fiddles around with at the slightest pretense.

CRANE: “There’s a pickpocketer on the loose? Well, I’m afraid I’m going to have to dig up your mother and open up her skull to solve this case.”
INCREASINGLY UPSET WOMAN: “What? WHY? What does she have to do with my purse!?!”
CRANE: “Just for that, I’m going to see what your skeletal father looks like right now.”

It turns out there’s an actual, “Are You There Agatha Christie? It’s Me, Margaret!” mystery surrounding the murders and the sight-impaired horseman. This was probably a wise angle to give the story, raising it above the typical slasher villain who doesn’t need much of a reason to do his dirty work. It does get a little long in the tooth (if you could find the teeth, that is) by the end, but I don’t fault the filmmakers for trying to give the story more depth.

The cast seems to have a jolly good time getting to dress up in period costumes, and I envy them getting to traipse around on this massive spooky set. I do wish we didn’t have to endure the presence of Christina Ricci (who plays Katrina), as she just smirks her way through a mild romantic subplot, but that is the price one must pay to be privileged to bear witness to Depp acting like a certified looney.

Crane is a definite anti-hero, but not in our traditional sense of being gruff and going against the rules. As the main character, he is charged with solving the mystery and saving the day, yet he’s cursed with severe issues, one of which is being extremely squeamish around anything bloody or dead. At one point he even cowers under the covers like a scared boy. Crane tries to hold fast to science, but although he mocks the superstitions of others, deep down he harbors his own. It makes for a terrifically fun character to watch, pasty and wimpy, a strange hero along the lines of Stephen King (who often gives his main characters distinct flaws and quirky characteristics).

Ultimately, the biggest star of Sleepy Hollow is neither the headless horseman or Ichabod Crane, but the atmosphere itself. Almost every scene is lit in dark greys and blues, with creeping fog tendrils, with shadows abounding like we all know actually exist out in the deep woods. In pretty much any other director’s care, a film like this would be played straight for cutting-edge horror, but Burton seems to really know that horror can have more aspects than just gore. The feel of the film is saturated with dark humor and a sense of magic — and not just the cult type of magic, but the kind that comes out when you’re a kid and exploring something new and strange and perhaps a bit apart from our reality.

Sleepy Hollow treads a line between blockbuster aspirations and a cult background, and probably alienated both the mainstream and cult audiences because of this. Yet how can we ignore a movie where our hero uses a little boy as a human shield and even bats get their heads chopped off? Sure, undoubtably some impressionable high school kids will be influenced to ride black chargers through their communities, chopping off heads at random, but that is but a small price to pay for this one-of-a-kind film.

Kyle’s rating: Modern Depp and Burtonmania overshadows this a bit, I think

Kyle’s review: I had not seen Sleepy Hollow before, even though I was always a big fan of Tim Burton and horror in general. I can’t explain it, really, I guess I grew up thinking the story of Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman was cool but not that cool, so a cinematic interpretation didn’t blow my skirt up. I figured I’d catch it on cable, or rent it when it hit 99 cents at Superstar. But I kept putting it off and off, and years passed and my hair grew long, and you don’t realize what you have till it’s gone. I love you, flower girl! I love you…

Whoa, where am I? Yes, so, in my tragic state of loss and under the stress of an honors thesis (note to college underclassmen: honors theses are HARD!), I decided it was time to finally see Sleepy Hollow. The weather is gray, the wind is cold, I’m dressing in all black (it’s almost thanksgiving, after all), and I have a little platonic crush on Johnny Depp after Pirates of the Caribbean. But let’s keep that to ourselves, yeah? And it’s a Tim Burton movie! How can I not see it at least once to fully darken my soul with his twisted genius? No, seriously, don’t mention that crush stuff to anybody, okay? I have a reputation to keep up here!

Sleepy Hollow ultimately was just a nice way to kill nearly two hours. It’s definitely overflowing with Burtonesqueness, which is a new word I just made up which means “Burton’s unique vision which tends towards the gothic but in a palatable sort of way that everyone, even those boys and girls who don’t wear eye make-up, can enjoy.”

Depp is great as the scaredy-cat police constable with a belief in science, though not exactly the sort of science they teach nowadays. Christina Ricci, inexplicably, has no eyebrows. Christopher Walken is terrifying, with or without a head, so he should be in more movies. The story is blah blah blah, who cares? There are sets that bear the Tim Burton seal of artistic vision, there are costumes and scientific instruments and carefully constructed corridors of dead trees and bad weather that pounds you over the head while screaming “This is a Tim Burton movie!” The Danny Elfman score helps nail you, which is nice, so everything hurts when you’re done. I like it!

Yeah, it’s cool to see Depp as an atypical hero and I like the horseman’s style with the whirling of axes and swords (you go, headless!), but Sleepy Hollow as an overall film has the impact of a light breeze. It chills you at first, but then you’re like “I don’t need a jacket, I’m a big boy/girl” and you go on and eventually you have some tasty mexican food and forget it all happened. Until you check your pocket and you find A SEVERED HUMAN HEAD!!! Or whatever. You’d think you would notice that sort of thing earlier. I don’t know where I was going with that.

Rent Sleepy Hollow to exercise your eyes, but be wary of a needlessly convoluted plot (there are only like 10 people in town anyway, so there are not too many suspects, you know?) and some plot contrivances that try to distract you from the primitive ways of 1799 but won’t prevent you from turning off your DVD/VCR/cable box and wondering “Where exactly did they go to the bathroom back then? And how does his coat stay so nice if he wears it all the time? And how did he wash the blood off so easily?” Those questions won’t bother you too long. Because you’ll turn around, and there it is, a human head. Noooo!

Didja notice?

  • Creepy scarecrow (it’s Jack from Nightmare Before Christmas!)
  • Love the judicial system of 1799 there
  • It takes 7 minutes and 20 seconds to get to the title credits
  • Casper Van is a tad touchy, yes yes
  • The camera doesn’t cut away for the head chopping — impressive
  • The plume of dust that rises off the big horse when Depp slaps it
  • The opening credits – shown over Ichabod’s travel to Sleepy Hollow – interact with the landscape: if Ichabod’s coach is near a river, the words are reflected on the surface of the water; if he’s in a forest the letters drift away like dead leaves, and so on.
  • There are 18 decapitations in this film.
  • The windmill scene is a recreation of a Walt Disney animated short from 1937 called “The Old Mill.”
  • The scene where Ichabod Crane crosses the covered bridge and hears the frogs underneath croaking “Ichabod” and “Headless Horseman” is a tribute to Disney’s 1949 animated version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
  • Icabod Crane faints five times in the movie.

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