Sleepy Hollow (1999)

JULY 2, 2016


My memory has gotten so bad that it wasn't until I was at the theater and experiencing deja vu that I realized I had already gone to the New Beverly to see Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow a few years back. At the time I promised to do an HMAD entry for it (it was in 2013, after I "retired", so I wasn't sworn to review anything!) if I stayed awake, but it was a midnight screening so of course I didn't. But that was nothing new for the movie - I also snoozed during my opening night viewing back in college (despite being with a girl I had a crush on - I guess I wasn't afraid to show her the real me! We never dated, natch) and again when I watched on DVD. In fact, it wasn't until this viewing that I realized there were parts of the movie I had never actually seen (such as the visit to the witch), so it's only now - nearly 17 years after first seeing the film - that I can finally say for sure that I've seen the whole thing. Go me!

The irony is that I actually quite like it; I've said before that I'm more likely to fall asleep during a movie I enjoy than one I am merely bored by, because a good movie is like a comfort to me and when I'm comfortable I nod off. This is also why I doze off almost every morning watching cartoons with my son, because he's snuggled next to me and that's just heaven (also, I've seen these goddamn Mickey Mouse Clubhouse episodes 50x a piece by now). Anyway, Burton's kind of an odd filmmaker to me, in that besides Ed Wood I wouldn't say I LOVE any of his movies, but find a great deal of them to be just enjoyable enough to own (but rarely watch); the only ones I flat out dislike are Apes and everything he's done with Depp since (save Sweeney Todd). But even more amusing to me is that this is really his only full blown, straight up horror movie; he's synonymous with creepy and macabre but his filmography rarely touches on traditional horror movies - his other genre-tinged offerings like Sweeney Todd or Mars Attacks are genre mashups. He's always used his horror influences to inform more mainstream fare (primarily comedies, the best example being Beetlejuice), but this - despite the fact that it's one of his biggest hits - remains the only time he was primarily focused on scares and suspense.

Not that the movie is humorless, at least in spirit - whether you actually laugh at any of Depp's mugging is another story. I can't be sure but this might have been the first movie where he did that exaggerated toothy grimace thing, and he also makes a few other faces when confronted with danger that are likely supposed to make us chuckle. And even if it wasn't the "origin" of this behavior, it's important to remember that at the time we certainly hadn't gotten tired of it, or even him - the actor only had a single hit movie (Donnie Brasco) in the '90s after Edward Scissorhands elevated his presumed star power, and this was also before him being in a Burton film was practically a given. In fact, the studio allegedly didn't even want him for the lead, asking for guys like Liam Neeson and Daniel Day-Lewis (!) instead - THAT'S how much different things were then. His recent career-downswing (not helped by his personal troubles) is due to his shtick growing too stale - when this movie was released he didn't even have any sort of calling card.

Luckily for the film's longevity, that stuff is kept to a minimum, and there isn't much humor to be found in the other performances. Burton stages a few Grand Guignol gags that will appeal to the gorehounds (primarily through the placement of recently disembodied heads), but again his main intent here was to tell a murder mystery that would fit at home in the Hammer canon. When I first saw (or, "saw") the movie in 1999 I had very little knowledge of Hammer; I think I had only seen one or two films and probably got the significance of Christopher Lee's appearance, but that was probably about it. Not that I'm a scholar now, but I certainly see far more of the influence; the gloomy sets, the Brit-heavy cast (including Michael Gough, the only other Hammer vet besides Lee as far as I know), and the other little touches like a stagecoach-set climax cribbed from the opening of Dracula AD 1972 (complete with the villain crashing into a tree and being subdued by the wagon). There are probably other touches I missed (as I said, I'm no scholar - I've seen a few dozen Hammer films but most of them only once), but I see enough to appreciate that Burton was spending nearly 100m of an American studio's money to pay tribute to a bunch of old British (and Italian; there's some Bava in there too) horror movies he liked.

And the plot fits right in with ALL '60s horror, not just Hammer - it's about someone knocking off their "competition" for an inheritance, complete with a recently changed will and lengthy bursts of exposition concerning characters who are already dead. It's almost like a slasher movie (in fact it was originally developed as one by Kevin Yagher and intended to be lower budgeted until Burton was brought on board), with the opening scene kill, the red herrings, and a reveal of who the killer really is. Alas, the identity of the mastermind is not difficult to figure out if you read the credits, as they are given prominent billing but have very little screentime (and even less to do in it) until the last half hour, so if you for some reason haven't seen it yet I encourage you not to read the credits if and when you finally get around to it, for it might help make the culprit a bit harder to peg. Otherwise, it's a fairly satisfying answer, despite the aforementioned exposition dumps, though I suspect fans of the original Washington Irving story were mortified at how little the movie had to do with it - Burton and his writers basically kept the names of the three main characters (and, albeit in a different context, their minor love triangle) and the idea of a headless horseman but changed everything else.

Especially when we learn that the Horseman is kind of a henchman for someone else, which is akin to Halloween 6's "Michael is just working for a cult" explanation. I mean, I guess it's better than the alternative of a personal revenge story that means little to us when the "character" is just a headless guy on a horse who shows up every now and then and kills off a Harry Potter cast member, but I can still see how it might feel like a lame way to use such a legend. To me, it's weirder that Christopher Walken plays the horseman - casting him in a role where he (obviously) doesn't speak is a bit like hiring Kobe Bryant for a basketball team and keeping him on the bench the whole time. It also feels sort of distracting for the two brief moments he appears with his head, especially the first which is a flashback and thus sort of suggests we'll see him more. I don't know if he played the role with a blue or green mask on his head, though I doubt it (according to the trivia he doesn't even know how to ride a horse, and there's a shot of him near the end, head back on, that's clearly a stunt guy), so as far as cameos go it's more of a distraction than a little bonus. Christopher Lee's bit is much more in line with traditional cameo "rules", as he's the judge who sends Depp off to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the murders - it makes sense that we never see him again.

It makes less sense about how minimal Casper Van Dien's role is in the proceedings, however. As Brom Van Brunt, the 3rd point of the love triangle with Depp and Christina Ricci, he's usually a bigger character in the story, but we only see him I think three times, the third being his death. It's funny, I remembered the big fight between him and Depp vs. the Horseman as being far more elaborate than it actually is - in reality it's rather brief and not particularly exciting, though I guess in 1999 when the actor was poised to be a bigger star it was probably a shock that he got killed halfway through. Still, before that point his role is primarily just glaring at Depp; he barely even has a real chunk of dialogue, rendering his part of the story rather insignificant in the long run. Anyway, this would pretty much be his last major theatrical feature - after this he did a bunch of TV movies and some DTV stuff (including one for a pre-video game era Uwe Boll!), and hasn't been in a wide release since, making this a rather depressing end to his big-screen career considering how inconsequential he is to the movie.

Anyway, you can ignore the plot and characters and just soak in the film's gorgeous production design and cinematography. It won an Oscar for its art direction, and DP Emmanuel Lubezki scored his second nomination for it (he didn't win, but as he won the last THREE Oscars for his work on Gravity and the two Iñárritu things*, I'm guessing it's not a big deal). It's a shame that it'd be his only film with Burton; I don't know if they didn't get along or what, but even Burton's weakest films have great production design, so it would have been wonderful if Lubezki had been the one responsible for how nice they looked on screen (of course, he's also Terrence Malick's go-to cinematographer, so it's possible Burton wants him and simply can't get him while he's off on those endless shoots). I popped in the DVD to watch a chunk of the end that I dozed through (I'll never ever see this thing start to finish without dozing off, it seems, but it was only during the big climax which I know I had seen) and almost felt guilty watching that way - the 35mm print was gorgeous of course, but since most folks won't get a chance to see it that way again, if there's one movie of Burton's you need on Blu-ray (if not 4K if such a release is planned), it's this one. The FX mostly hold up too; some of the digital trickery for the kill scenes is a bit of a sore spot, but Burton wasn't afraid to toss around the real stuff, and the occasional imperfect background plates kind of fit in with the Hammer movies anyway.

It's a no-brainer that if you're looking for anything Burton-related for Halloween time, it's probably gonna be Nightmare Before Christmas (which he did not direct, I remind you), but this is really his most holiday-appropriate entry. It's not specifically about Halloween (though there is a Jack o'lantern or two), but the gloomy setting and upstate New York locale (close enough to New England) makes it very much in line with the sort of movies I tend to pull off the shelf come October; it's almost a bummer that it's rather violent and bloody as it'll be a long time before I figure it's OK to show my son (is there a Sleepy Hollow-fied episode of the Clubhouse?). While watching I felt like I was doing a disservice to it in a way, watching with soda and with 90 degree temps outside - this is a movie to watch with a warm cup of apple cider while snuggled under a blanket. If you somehow still haven't seen it, wait until October to do so!

What say you?

*Not a fan, though if anything deserved to be showered with Oscar gold for either of those movies, it's his work.


  1. I took my "now" wife to see this. After the first beheading, she leaned over and asked, why did you bring me to see this?" Priceles .

  2. Ray Park played the headless version of the Horseman.

    I've always enjoyed this movie. It feels very much like Burton doing a slasher to me. I'm curious about if the script looked any different when Yagher intended to direct it.

  3. "'s almost a bummer that it's rather violent and bloody as it'll be a long time before I figure it's OK to show my son..."
    This amuses me since I was seven when I first saw this back when it came out on DVD and I was perfectly fine.

    1. It's not about being scared at the time, it's about getting desensitized before you're old enough to really know what death means. I saw stuff way worse than this at 7 and I chalk it up to why horror movies don't scare me and why I have trouble processing death in real life. I want him to be the right age for the long run reasons, not because he might have nightmares that night.

  4. I LOVE this movie. Just wish it had a better story...I don't like the Headless Horseman being played as a chump. Goegrous movie, one of the best looking ever made, I'd say.

  5. I'm really interested in your comment about why you want to show your son (and any future children, maybe!) these kinds of movies when they're a bit older. Have you written a longer piece about it somewhere in your many writing outlets?
    I'm moved by your assertion that you don't know how to process death in real life, as if anybody knows how to do that, and even more as if they could learn it from watching movies of any kind.
    But sure, Sleppy Hollow would be a VERY odd place to start with that sort of quest! The Babadook, maybe, but then you're in nightmares for a lot of nights territory...


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