Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Author: Wes R.
Submitted by: Wes R.   Date : 2009-12-11 11:10

Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Andrew Kevin Walker and Washington Irving (novella, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow")
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, and Christopher Walken

Reviewed by: Wes R.

"We have murders in New York without benefit of ghouls and goblins."
"You are a long way from New York, constable."

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" has long been one of my favorite stories. Although I have only read the original novella once (and very long ago at that) the story of the Headless Horseman has been adapted for the screen and TV almost as many times as the stories of Count Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. For me, the attraction is the combination of the historical and almost fairy tale aspects of the story. However, none of the previous versions stirred the excitement within the horror community more than the news that Ed Wood and Beetlejuice director Tim Burton would be taking a crack at the story executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather and Bram Stoker's Dracula) and with a script by then hot screenwriter, Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven and 8MM).

Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is a New York City constable, conducting some of the earliest experiments in forensic science and detection (changed from a school teacher in the original book). He is summoned to a quaint town to the North called Sleepy Hollow to investigate a recent string of unsolved murders where the victims heads were never found. Upon arriving at Sleepy Hollow, Crane makes quick friends with Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the daughter of one of Sleepy Hollow's most prominent families. During his investigation, Crane learns of a superstition shared amongst the townspeople, of the ghost of a murdered Hessian soldier (Christopher Walken) who rides upon a phantom steed and decapitates all in his path in search of the head he lost long ago. As Crane's investigation into the murders grows deeper and deeper, new victims meet a headless fate one-by-one. Does the legendary Headless Horseman exist or is someone very real trying to make sure others believe in the ghost stories?

Ever wonder what it would've been like if Hammer or Amicus had directed a version of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"? Look no further. This is a nearly perfect modern horror classic. Though the Eli Roths and Rob Zombies of the world give questionable proof as to whether horror fans are cut out to direct horror films, I would gladly welcome Tim Burton back to the genre any time he pleases. If you had told me back in 1985 that the man responsible for Pee Wee's Big Adventure was capable of crafting a fun, scary, thrill ride of a horror movie, I probably would've doubted them. Seeing how Burton's career has progressed and ventured into dark territory since that time, it almost feels as though him finally directing a horror movie was something inevitable. One thing is certain, the man knows how to make a solid, spooky, gothic horror movie. From the foggy forests to the creaky old windmill, there is plenty of good classic horror movie atmosphere to soak up here. This is the kind of horror movie that really didn't exist anymore. Modern slashers and their countless variations took such a grip on the genre that period and gothic horror really hadn't been attempted for quite sometime. Even looking back on the film some ten years later, it's a truly refreshing experience.

A grand mix of Burton regulars and newcomers, the cast for this one is astonishing. In addition to Depp, Ricci, and Walken, we also get Helena Bonham-Carter, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Martin Landau, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, and Hammer regulars Christopher Lee and Michael Gough. Walken is particularly menacing as the Horseman during the few scenes where he still has a head. Most of the Horseman's best scenes, however, feature Ray Park (Darth Maul from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace). As stated, Depp's Ichabod Crane is a bit different than the original Irving version. That, of course, isn't the extent of the changes that Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker made to the story for his film. I think my biggest complaint (and it is an extremely minor complaint) is that being a purist for book-to-film adaptations, I would've preferred a bit more faithful adaptation. Considering how many times this same story has been attempted poorly over the years, the one chance for a big-budget, big screen adaptation ends up being a slightly altered story. There are a few more involved changes to the plot, but that would spoil too much. In all, I feel the changes provided the film an interesting take, if not a faithful one.

Longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman's fantastic musical work here is bittersweet. As amazing as this score is, it has unfortunately become a point of reference as to when Elfman's work took a downward spiral. The scores he has worked on since have ranged from boring Hulk to uninteresting Spider Man to downright terrible Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, truly unworthy of the legacy of all the film work he created prior to Sleepy Hollow. But this one last masterpiece is filled with the kind of ominous tones one would expect to hear in a movie based on this particular tale. Plenty of strings, a chorus of children creepily singing... Elfman really knocked it out of the park with this one. The cinematography is breathtaking. For a horror film, this is truly remarkable. Though most of the color is completely drained from many of the shots, they still have the lush haunting beauty of an old painting. In many instances, the crimson splashes of blood are the brightest objects in the entire movie. Speaking of the blood, thankfully, most of the blood and gore in the film are of the practical variety and not CGI. CGI is used mainly for the removal of the horseman's head during necessary sequences.

Paramount has released the film on DVD with a handful of extras, including interviews, a behind the scenes featurette and an audio commentary with Tim Burton. HD-DVD and Blu-Ray versions soon followed. A high def format is definitely the way to go when seeing out this beautifully shot flick. Movies like this don't come along very often. I went into the film very excited about its prospects and came out having all of my expectations not only met but exceeded. I wish that Burton would someday venture back into the horror genre, for if Sleepy Hollow is any indication whatsoever, it is proof that the man was born to direct horror. Perhaps someday, a more faithful version to the original Irving story will be made for audiences and purists to enjoy, but until that day comes, this film will more than suffice as the definitive version of the classic horror story. I honestly can't recommend a movie higher. Sleepy Hollow rocks and I urge you to watch if if you never have. Essential!

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