Monday Picks: Tim Burton’s ‘Sleepy Hollow’

This week’s pick is Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), a newer take on Washington Irving’s legendary 1820 novel The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Johnny Depp stars as Ichabod Crane, a New York City police constable who is sent to the quaint upstate village that is the sight of several grizzly decapitations.

Crane believes in science and deductive reasoning, where as the local inhabitants of the sleepy little hamlet attribute the murders to the slain ghost of a Hessian mercenary killed during the American Revolution.

Crane believes that the killer is flesh and blood, and not a demonic spirit as told to him by the town’s elders. Using his powers of deduction and a bag of scientific/forensic tools to discover traces which will lead him to the killer, Crane is about to discover that in the age of reason, there are still many things that are beyond comprehension in the world of Tim Burton.

Depp plays the bungling inspector perfectly, with traces of Basil Rathbone, meets Jessica Marples. The supporting cast includes Christina Ricci (Katrina Van Tassel), Sir Michael Gambon (Baltus Van Tassel), Casper Van Dien (Brom Van Brunt), Jeffery Jones (Reverend Steenwyck), Marc Pickering (Young Masbath), Michael Gough (Notary Hardenbrook), Miranda Richardson (Lady Van Tassel), Ian McDiarmid (Doctor Lancaster), Sir Christopher Lee (The Burgomaster), and Christopher Walken as the Hessian who later becomes the Headless Horsemen.

As more townsfolk die at the hands of the Headless Horsemen, Crane realizes that the story of the Hessian mercenary is true and that he and his science are no match for him. Crane begins to piece together that there is someone or something that commands the horsemen to select and kill his victims. At first it seems to be a series of random killings, but each townsperson was specifically selected and targeted by the horsemen. Crane uncovers a plot involving land rights and that the one who commands the horsemen, determines who shall live and who will die in Sleepy Hollow.

The film is wonderfully shot by Emmanuel Lubezki who Burton had hired after he had seen his work in the film Great Expectations. Burton has always been a huge admirer of old horror films and used many cinematography angles and techniques pioneered in many of the old British Hammer Films, namely the films which stared Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, and the great Peter Cushing.

Some of my favorite scenes in the film include the discovery of one of the victims Jonathan Masbath who was cut down in the western woods by the horsemen. Baltus Van Tassel (Gambon) and the town elders find Masbath’s corpse and summon constable Crane to investigate. Crane arrives on the scene and removes from his bag a set of goggles with telescopic lenses that he uses to examine the severed remains. Crane discovers that the wound had been cauterized as soon as the blade struck the victim. Crane is told that the fires of hell are what made it possible.

My second favorite scene is where Crane is riding his faithful steed Gunpowder over a covered bridge, Crane’s fears are amplified by the sounds of frogs and crickets calling his name, the same sound effects used in the 1949 Disney classic: The Adventures of Mr. Toad and Ichabod Crane. Crane turns and asks who’s there. The Headless Horsemen appears and chases Crane into the woods. Crane stops and confronts the spirit and is thrown to the ground after a flaming pumpkin is hurtled at him. We later discover that it is none other than Brom (Van Dien) who despises Crane and his affections towards the lovely Katrina.

Several flashback sequences are also used in the film that explain many of the horrible nightmares Crane suffers from. In one scene Katrina asks him about several horrible scars on the palms of his hands. Crane replies that he has had them for as long as he can remember. We later learn that his father was a religious tyrant who punished and tortured Ichabod’s mother who practiced witchcraft.

The discovery of the Tree of the Dead is a fantastic scene in which Crane and young Masbath rely on the assistance of an old witch who channels spirits in order to find the horsemen’s resting place. Crane and Masbath notice that the further they venture into the woods, the more quiet and eerie it becomes. We discover that the Tree of the Dead is the gateway between our world and the supernatural.

The chase sequences and action is top notch throughout the film and much of the stunt work is very impressive. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace newcomer and stuntman Ray Park (Darth Maul) performs many of the Headless Horsemen’s fight sequences when he is brandishing his sword and axe.  The fight scene between Brom, the Horsemen and Ichabod is wonderfully executed. Depp’s acting lends a Keystone Cops quality in the fighting as he and Brom try to defeat the demonic foe.

Sleepy Hollow was a huge hit when it hit theaters in November 1999 making over two hundred and seven million dollars. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times hailed it as Burton’s finest achievement yet. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design. It won for Best Art Direction at the 2000 Academy Awards. Burton’s style is also attributed to former Oingo Boingo front man Danny Elfman who has scored most of Burton’s films. Elfman relied on his former band mates to assist in the film’s haunting score.

Sleepy Hollow is available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc through Paramount Home Video and can be rented via Netflix and other streaming sites.

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