Heads will roll.
“The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow” was first published in 1819. Written by Washington Irving, it was part of a collection of essays and short stories that also included “Rip Van Winkle.” The rich atmosphere and haunting tale of Irving’s story has been the basis for several film adaptations. The first three were silent films, released in 1908, 1912, and 1922 (that version, entitled The Headless Horseman starred famous vaudevillian Will Rogers). Next came an animated short, directed by Ub Iwerk. Iwerk was one of the pioneers of animation, working in the early days of the format with Walt Disney — the two co-directed Mickey Mouse’s first appearance, “Steamboat Willie.” (Iwerk’s The Headless Horseman is available on DVD as part of “Cartoons That Time Forgot, Volume 3: Things That Go Bump In The Night.“) In 1949 came the version most people will remember, as part of Disney’s The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad. For many years, the Disney animated version was the definitive telling of Irving’s legend, and the way that many children were introduced to the myth. In the years hence, the story would be made into two made-for-television movies, including one in 1980 for NBC that starred Jeff Goldblum (The Fly, Jurassic Park) as Ichabod Crane and Meg Foster as Katrina Van Tassel (I only mention her because I’m amused that she played Cagney of Cagney And Lacey before being replaced after six episodes by Sharon Gless).
In 1999, there came the greatest retelling of the tale of the Headless Horseman, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. Burton and screenwriters Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker take some liberties with the narrative, but their changes only serve to strengthen the plot, make it more accessible to modern audiences, and spin it into a bona fide horror story.
Please allow a personal preamble to the main section of my review. As anyone who has read my reviews of other Tim Burton films (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Mars Attacks!) can attest, I am a very big fan of Tim Burton’s work. My life being what it is, I didn’t discover the joys of his movies until the theatrical release of Mars Attacks!, which incidentally was the last movie he directed before Sleepy Hollow. In the three years between those movies, I watched his entire oeuvre on video, loving every single movie, waiting anxiously for his next picture to be released. I caught Sleepy Hollow during its opening weekend…and somehow I was disappointed. Sure, it was cool and all, but it didn’t quite fit my notions — “weird” and “quirky” being the most prominent adjectives — of a Tim Burton movie. Where was the offbeat satire that made Edward Scissorhands so appealing, or the quirkiness of Johnny Depp’s performance in Ed Wood, or the mind-numbing cheesiness of Mars Attacks!?
Watching Sleepy Hollow again on DVD, I had an epiphany. It’s not necessarily that Burton’s chief intention is making a movie that’s weird and quirky, but those characteristics are by-products of what he’s really trying to create. The unifying thread of his films is that he strives to build a world that exists on its own, that’s independent of the rules or conventions of the “real world.” He populates his worlds with characters that are not out of place in the fabricated environments. Into the mix is thrust a hero who fits that world, yet is still a fish out of water. Take Batman, for instance. Gotham City is his world: a dark, menacing, crumbling metropolis teeming with all manner of human detritus. Batman fits that world, but is at odds with the criminal element. Or, Ed Wood. Ed Wood was at home in the crazy world of Hollywood, yet his cross-dressing and lack of talent made him an outcast.
In Sleepy Hollow, Burton’s world is the titular small town, nestled in remote woods far away from the foul, dirty New York City of 1799 (come to think of it, it’s not much different now). The residents are mostly of Dutch descent, and there is a wide gap between the rich (the Van Tassel and Van Garrett families) and the poor (virtually everyone else). They’re a superstitious lot, going to the extremes of either the religious or the occult. Suddenly, three people are killed within a fortnight (go get your dictionary if you don’t know what a fortnight is): the elder Van Garrett, his son, and a widow. They were not merely murdered; they were decapitated and the heads taken by their assailant. Help is sought from New York City to find the murderer and put him to justice. Help arrives in the form of Ichabod Crane.
Ichabod may be a constable, but he fancies himself a man of science, endeavoring to use “modern scientific techniques” to deduce the details of crimes. His superiors, fed up with his eccentric ways, send him off to Sleepy Hollow. When he arrives, he is regaled with tales of the Headless Horseman, once a Hessian mercenary, who haunts the woods to the west of town. His firm belief in scientific principles, that everything must have a natural cause, leads him to discount the supernatural explanation. Ichabod goes about his merry way, examining the corpses and interviewing the more suspicious members of Sleepy Hollow’s elite. While associating with Sleepy Hollow’s upper crust, he meets Katrina Van Tassel, a fair damsel who reminds Ichabod of his mother, dead since his childhood.
“Goes about his merry way”…that is, until one night he is confronted and nearly skewered by the Headless Horseman. Faced with the truth, he abandons his notions that there is a rational explanation to the killings and turns his efforts to finding the Horseman’s resting place and his motivation for slaying his targets, who clearly are not chosen at random. His investigation leads him to a witch living in the Western Woods, and the Tree of the Dead, at the base of which is the Hessian’s grave. There, Ichabod discovers that the Hessian’s skull is missing. With the keen reasoning of Sherlock Holmes, he infers that whoever is in possession of the skull is the person who controls the Horseman and bids him to kill. Can Ichabod find the skull’s owner, return it to the Horseman, and protect himself and the damsel in distress? But of course.
Sleepy Hollow‘s cast is full of incredibly talented actors. Johnny Depp, in his third collaboration with Tim Burton (he portrayed the title characters of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood), plays Ichabod Crane. The Ichabod Crane of Washington Irving’s short story was a tall, gangly schoolteacher, fond of food, fonder yet of women, and extremely superstitious. Here, Ichabod is reinvented as a book-wise but street-dumb detective, outwardly forceful but inwardly timid.
Like the best Method actors, Depp is enveloped by the character, embodying Ichabod in a way that will make you completely forget his other film roles. Also enveloped by her character is Christina Ricci, who plays the fair Katrina Van Tassel. Gone is the smug morbidity of her role as Wednesday in the Addams Family films, or the flippant bitchiness of her character in The Opposite of Sex. As Katrina, she is soft-spoken and gentle, a romantic young woman waiting for a suitable suitor.
Several other Burton regulars fill smaller, yet very weighty roles. Jeffrey Jones (Beetlejuice, Ed Wood) plays Reverend Steenwyck, a man of the cloth who gives in to his carnal desires. Michael Gough (Alfred in all four of the recent Batman flicks) plays the town notary. Christopher Walken (Batman Returns) brings his considerable nonverbal acting skills to the Hessian mercenary — and all he can act with are his creepy looks, for his lines amount to variations of “RRRR!” Lisa Marie (Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!), who is also Burton’s girlfriend, plays Ichabod’s mother in several dream sequences. Martin Landau, who won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, appears in a very brief cameo before losing his head. Burton newcomers fill out the rest of the cast: Ian McDiarmid (The Phantom Menace) as the town doctor, Michael Gambon (The Insider) as town patriarch Baltus Van Tassel, Richard Griffiths (Superman II) as the town magistrate, and the über-talented Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers) as the muscle-headed Brom Van Brunt. Making an all-too-brief cameo appearance is horror movie legend Christopher Lee.
Like I said previously, a large component of Tim Burton’s films is the world in which they are situated. Sleepy Hollow was filmed primarily on sound stages and in a full-size town set erected outside of London. Even the scenes filmed in the Western Woods, including several full-speed horse and carriage chases, were filmed on sound stages. The movie does not appear to be set-bound, however, due to the skillful use of forced perspective shots (where scaled-down versions of objects are placed closer to the camera, so that they appear to be in the distance) and voluminous quantities of fake fog. The set decoration and tone of the movie was an homage to the films of the Hammer Studio, a British company that churned out horror movies during the 1960s and ’70s. The film stock was treated to give the picture a bleached, almost monochromatic appearance. The only color that stands out significantly from the dreariness is the crimson blood.
Paramount is not a studio known for producing stunning special editions of their properties. But, my opinion is that a disc rises or falls by its audio and video quality, not by its wealth or lack of extras. Sleepy Hollow doesn’t disappoint in either category. The manipulated picture could have been problematic, but like Warner Brothers’ transfer of Three Kings, it is pulled off flawlessly. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The black level is dead-on accurate, deep without sacrificing detail. The picture can appear grainy, but that is an element of the postproduction processing of the negative. In other words, it’s part of the look of the film and it’s a good thing that the DVD transfer captures it. The image is razor-sharp while not appearing overly digital or exhibiting any sort of edge enhancement. I noticed no digital artifacts, or dirt or scratches on the negative. This video transfer is a wonderful example of how perfect a movie can look on DVD. The audio is very bass-intensive, even in the Dolby Surround track. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track makes not-so-subtle use of the LFE channel, pummeling your senses with the thundering hoofbeats of the Headless Horseman’s steed. Danny Elfman’s score is used predominantly, as it well should be.
While Sleepy Hollow is not a disc you can shake a stick at, it is a movie with enough richness that in the hands of another studio (dare I say, even Fox?) it could have easily spawned a two-disc set. The extras are not as extensive as the movie could afford, but are of high enough quality that I shall not complain. Tim Burton provides a full-length commentary track. I believe this is only the second commentary he has recorded (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure being the first), and his uncomfortableness shows. His comments often are only sketches, not filling in pertinent details. He will go for long gaps without saying anything, and then without warning will pop in with an all-too-brief comment about the onscreen action. Still, he has many interesting things to say, and his delivery gives insights into his personality and his creative process. The best extra is a 30-minute featurette on the making of the film, created specially for the DVD. It isn’t the sort of promotional piffle that usually finds its way onto DVD releases. It is a thorough look at all aspects of the movie, from the design to the shooting to the extensive special effects work. However, it’s filled with spoilers, so be sure to watch the movie first if you haven’t seen it already. The promotional role of the extras is filled by an 11-minute selection of interviews with Tim Burton and the cast. Rounding out the extras are two theatrical trailers for Sleepy Hollow. They are presented in 1.85 widescreen and Dolby Surround. The teaser trailer in particular is a fine example of how to reveal just enough to whet an audience’s appetite without giving away the entire movie. It is absolutely chilling.
The only fault I can find with the disc itself is a strange little production error. During chapter 9, the subtitles drop out for at least three minutes before resuming. Very odd.
I wish that Paramount had included some of the scenes cut before the film reached theatres. I know there’s at least one, because I read most of the screenplay prior to seeing the film. At the very beginning of the film, there is a scene that takes place in a courtroom (it’s the scene with Christopher Lee’s cameo). Someone demonstrates a cage-like contraption used to force convicts to sign bogus confessions. Ichabod stands up and rails against the court for its barbaric methods, and makes a comment to the effect that their deduction methods are worth no more than the bogus confession. The theatrical cut retains the line about the worthless confession, and you can still see the man locked in the cage, but the lead-in is strangely absent.
By all means, rush out and pick up Sleepy Hollow. It will please fans of action, period drama, horror movies steeped in atmosphere rather than gore, and, of course, Tim Burton fans. The movie has immense replay value, and while the disc may not be a showcase of your equipment, it is a superior product technically.
I feel the need to say that, in Washington Irving’s short story, the Hessian was killed by a cannon ball that decapitated him, rather than a bunch of puny colonials in tricorner hats. Sure, it works better for the story the way it’s portrayed in the movie, but wouldn’t it have been cool to see a stray cannon round take off a guy’s head?
For you trivia lovers out there, let’s find all the connections between Sleepy Hollow and the Star Wars series. First, there’s the actors. Ian McDiarmid played Emperor Palpatine in Return Of The Jedi, then reprised the role (minus forty or so years of Star Wars history, and demoted to Senator) in The Phantom Menace. Christopher Walken was the second choice to play Han Solo before the filming of Star Wars. Ray Park, who played silent-but-deadly Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, is the man in the Headless Horseman costume during many of his key fight scenes. This one is something of a stretch, but…Sleepy Hollow is Tim Burton’s homage to the horror films of the 1960s and ’70s produced by the Hammer Studio in England. Two of the actors who were in several of the studio’s films were Peter Cushing and David Prowse. Cushing played Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, and Prowse was the man behind Darth Vader’s mask in all three films of the “holy trilogy.” Next, there’s the common crewmembers. Nick Gillard was the stunt coordinator on Sleepy Hollow and The Phantom Menace, working with the actors to perfect the carefully choreographed fight scenes. Tony Dawe worked in the sound department of Sleepy Hollow and Return Of The Jedi, and this exhaustive list worked on both Sleepy Hollow and The Phantom Menace: Ben Howarth, Rob Inch, Shawn Murphy, Aaron Muszalski, Christopher Newman, Janet Nielsen, Jim Passon, and Jayne-Ann Tenggren. Whew. And lastly, location. Sleepy Hollow and The Phantom Menace both extensively used Leavesden Studios in England for the sound stage filming. [Note: there is one more connection. After this review was posted, it was announced that Christopher Lee would be among the cast of Star Wars: Episode 2.]
Thanks to my epiphany, I am now eagerly awaiting Tim Burton’s next project, a remake of The Planet Of The Apes. I was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to make talking apes weird and quirky, but now I’m confident that he’ll make a world where talking apes seem entirely normal. Here’s hoping that Martin Landau plays Dr. Zaius…