Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Tim Burton is one of the directors whose movies defined my childhood. When I was a kid, I remember that we had movie day on Fridays in school. After we'd finished our morning work, if we had finished our homework for the week, they'd roll in a TV and VCR and we'd watch The Goonies or Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal or Willow or Beetlejuice. I must have seen Beetlejuice about twenty times. I saw Edward Scissorhands at least five times in the theater and wore out the VHS tape. Mars Attacks remains one of the most mean-spirited comedies ever made. Burton was on a roll all through the mid-80s to the new millennium.
Sleepy Hollow came out when I was in college. Washington Irving's story lends itself to Burton's visual style, because Burton is basically Edward Gorey, if Edward Gorey had a fetish for putting Johnny Depp in greasepaint. Ichabod Crane was an uptight, cowardly schoolteacher in the original, but here he's an uptight, cowardly detective whose forensic methods of crime-solving put him at odds with his God-fearing Victorian counterparts. Eventually he makes enough of a fuss about late-1800s investigative techniques that he's exiled to the small Dutch community of Sleepy Hollow in upstate New York, where a number of bodies have recently turned up headless.
Upon his arrival, Crane almost immediately causes a stir, as the insular community of founding families and relatives is slow to trust a progressive-minded outsider, and he quickly connects with Katrina van Tassel, daughter of Baltus, the patriarch of the richest land-owning family in the Hudson Highlands, earning him the enmity of her admirer Brom van Brunt (Casper van Dien, who we last saw in Starship Troopers). Crane initially dismisses the townsfolk as a credulous bunch of country idiots after they tell him the horrifying story of a berserk Hessian mercenary who once plagued the village and its surroundings before being beheaded and buried in an unmarked grave in the old haunted woods nearby.
Utterly confident in his scientific methods, it's not long before Crane witnesses an attack for himself and has a total breakdown, as everything he'd come to believe about the way the world works has now been turned on its head. When he finally snaps out of it, he realizes the headless horseman is only a tool, a sort of living murder weapon under another's control, and that the real culprit is tied to a conspiracy among the local families, which he sets out to solve before his own head rolls.
This was Tim Burton's last good movie, with his next effort being the fairly miserable Planet of the Apes remake, which was nearly devoid of all the "Burtonian" elements that are so prominent in Sleepy Hollow. Although Beetlejuice gives it a run for its money, Sleepy Hollow is also probably his best. It was one of his very few R-rated films -- territory he's rarely visited since, and in which he's considerably more at ease than M. Night Shyamalan was when he made The Happening. Blood sprays all over the place, kids die, heads are chopped off, people are cut in half -- it's a surprisingly bloody movie when you're more accustomed to his earlier work; Ed Wood only earned an R rating for language and drug use.
Burton's visuals are superbly creepy here. The village is dark, dingy and run-down even in daylight, and the fields and farmlands around it are full of ominous haystacks and crooked scarecrows (one of which bears a close resemblance to The Nightmare Before Christmas' Jack Skellington). At night, literal tendrils of fog creep in from the overgrown wilderness of the Western Woods to extinguish torches and lanterns.
Sleepy Hollow has an extremely strong cast. Johnny Depp hadn't yet become a caricature of himself, and Crane is an adorable coward who's more than willing to use Katrina and kid sidekick Young Masbath as human shields even after he's resolved to confront the horseman. He's sometimes hilariously inept at investigating the mystery, as he tends to arrange all his evidence in the correct order purely by accident and then draw an almost completely unrelated conclusion from it. The town elders are a fine ensemble including Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, Richard Griffiths, Jeffrey Jones and Michael Gough. There are some memorable cameos as well -- most of all Christopher Walken as the pre-headless Hessian, who has no lines but makes the most of his filed teeth and berserk snarling. If there's a weak link, it's Miranda Richardson, who's ordinarily a skilled actress but gets some of the movie's worst dialogue and hams it up just a bit too much when her character becomes significant near the end.
One final observation: this is also probably the most Freudian movie I've ever seen, and I kind of wonder if anyone else sees it this way, as I've never seen this aspect touched upon in critical reviews. Powerful male authority figures are responsible for much of the pain and turmoil at the heart of Sleepy Hollow. Crane's father was a zealous tyrant of a minister whose torture of Crane's mother still haunts their son, who has mostly suppressed the memory of it. Baltus van Tassel's past indiscretions become significant when the conspiracy comes to light. Then there's the late Christopher Lee's excellent cameo as a menacing judge, framed with a pair of black wings behind him, who commands Crane to investigate the beheadings and closely resembles Crane's father, likely a deliberate choice on Burton's part. The portal through which the horseman emerges into the mortal world is a pretty close approximation of a birth canal. Magistrate Phillipse keeps an ankh (a symbol of life and balance, combining masculine and feminine symbolism) around his neck as a talisman against the horseman. And on a good day, back then, Burton sort of looked like Depp, and here he casts his then-wife Lisa Marie, with an extremely low neckline and corset, as young Crane's mother, so -- there's a lot of weird psychological shit to pick apart in this movie if you want to.
Available On: Netflix.