Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I absolutley love Tim Burton. Not in the way that socially outcasted, Hot Topic adoring, High School Goth girls love Tim Burton but pretty freakin close. What I love about Mr. Burton is that he makes two different kinds of movies and often intentionally sets up 2 or 3 projects simultaneously. You can say what you will about Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Planet of the Apes, but these are audience movies. Made purely for the summer movie crowd, kids and parents of all ages and meant to be light-hearted popcorn fare. These movies, despite their negative reviews, always make loads of money and become one of the highest grossing releases of the year. This is how Tim Burton makes his money. However these are the projects that Tim Burton could really care a less about in terms of artistic integrity. He saves his true ambitions and emotions for projects more close to the heart. Films like Corpse Bride, Ed Wood, Big Fish, Sweeney Todd and this classic horror gem from 1999, Sleepy Hollow.

Burton is at his best when gets his “dark and gritty” on with a hard R rating. The R rating alone allows Burton to seperate his audience; the men from the boys. Leave the kids at home because Jack Skellington has an all new nightmare. A twisted take on Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, one of the few true American fairy tales, Burton’s imagination runs rampant with a loving homage to Christopher Lee and the Hammer horror films of the 60s and 70s.

In Sleepy Hollow heads are not just lopped off. A brutal slash to the throat sends heads spinning off like a top and we witness the lifeless body that remains collapse to the ground. Midway through the film a small boy witnesses, from beneath the wooden floorboards of their home, his mother and father butchered at the hands of the Headless Horseman . Just as the Horseman is about to exit and we believe the kid is free from harm, he comes back. The next shot is the Horseman exiting the family’s cottage…he is stuffing the boy’s head into a large burlap sack. The former Disney animator is playing by his own rules here and its bloody brilliant.

With Sleepy Hollow, Burton collaborates with Depp for his third time (following Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood) as well as an eclectic cast of British talent. Depp brings an eccentric, humorous, almost Hunter S. Thompson like quality to the impish Ichabod Crane. After a series of brave, authorative lectures to the townspeople of Sleepy Hollow, we see Crane tremble at the first sighting of the Headless Horseman and cower behind a small boy when a spider runs across the floor. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (coming off the acclaim of 1995’s Se7en and 1997’s The Game) keeps Crane as vulnerable and sympathetic as the classic character we’ve come to know. An autopsy scene and later the chopping of a living, breathing tree causes large amounts of blood to fly up onto Crane and directly in his mouth. It’s a great display of humor and gross-out horror. Yet in keeping with the tone of Se7en, Walker writes Crane as the first true detective. He flaunts a series of steampunk gadgets and devices to prove that the true killer is a man (or woman) of flesh and blood.

Supporting the film is a stelllar ensemble of talent. From powerhouse players Ian McDiarmid, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Miranda Richardson, Martin Landau and the late, great Michael Gough as the socialites of Sleepy Hollow to the never-been-gnarlier Christopher Walken as the appalling apparition, the Headless Horseman. The only thing Walken does in this film is spread his long, sharpened teeth and scream “Aaargh!” several times and it really freakin’ works.

And of course, all of Burton’s usual creative team is here on full display. Danny Elfman’s score is a haunting twist on Colonial era ballads, Colleen Atwood’s costume design is the most engaging of any period piece Ive seen and editor Chris Lebenzon keeps the shocks and chills coming. The highlight for me is Burton’s first (and so far only) employement of the great Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki is one of the greatest cinematographers, from Alfonso Cuaron’s Solo Con Tu Pareja and Children of Men, to The Coen Brother’s Burn After Reading. His use of wide angles, lenses and framing is unmatched by his contemporaries and here his camera work gives Burton’s landscapes an epic scale that his films had never had before.

Sleepy Hollow is the kind of bloody, brutal, atmospheric horror that Burton grew up loving and the kind of film I hope Burton unleashes this summer with the long gestating adaptation of Dark Shadows.

-John

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