When it gets around to, let’s face it, August, September, and October, a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of pumpkins, the macabre, and caramel-apple-spice-cider drinks. If you’re like me (and, if you’re reading this, then I can safely make that assumption) you’ve got a short list of films that you call up on your digital streaming what-have-you (or, if you’re even MORE like me, your DVD player) to help make the season even more atmospheric.
For me, at the very top of that list, is Tim Burton’s 1999 love-letter to autumn, Sleepy Hollow.
The film is based on a short story (or novella) entitled The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by that shining light of the early American literati, Washington Irving. Published in 1820 and part of a collection of other stories and essays, the tale is probably Irving’s best-known work, along with Rip Van Winkle.
The story, taking place in Dutch-settled Upstate New York, is basically a charming portrait of life in the Hudson Valley, combined with a finely-wrought ghost story.
It concerns itinerant schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, who is entranced by Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of Sleepy Hollow’s wealthiest man, Baltus Van Tassel. Crane, obsessed with food and good living, basically wants to put himself in line to inherit Baltus’ fortune.
Crane, “lean, but exceedingly lank,” is basically an early literary archetype of the geek: smart and well-educated, he’s also a terrific gossip – and terrified of ghosts and superstitions. His rival for Katrina’s affections (though, we get the picture fairly strongly, it’s not much of a horse race) is Brom Bones, a big burly fellow who’s the archetypical jock.
Things come to a head one night when Crane attends the big autumn festival and hears the tale of the Headless Horseman, a local ghost who rides around “looking for a head to chop,” as the Disney version of the story goes.
Crane, riding home alone and in the dark, runs into the ghost, and the race is on. But Ichabod’s ultimate fate is left a mystery.
The story ends with a big question: Did Brom simply dress up as the HH to scare the hell out of Crane and get him to skip town, or was Crane a true victim of the ghost?
Burton’s film, taking place in 1799, alters matters somewhat.
Crane, here portrayed by Johnny Depp, is a constable in the New York City police force, who uses scientific methods to solve his cases. Essentially a burr under the saddle of his superiors, Crane is sent to Sleepy Hollow on the Hudson to investigate a string of murders in which the victims were beheaded, the heads themselves taken.
Crane here is still a nerd, but of a different sort: He makes his own scientific instruments, can’t sit a horse to save his life, and is terrified of insects and anything “unnatural.” Throughout the film we also find Crane wrestling with revelatory nightmares about his own past and the death of his mother at the hands of his father. (Spoiler alert: she was a good witch, and he a “bible-black tyrant” as the film says).
Arriving in town, Crane meets a series of characters: Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), his wife (Miranda Richardson), the town fathers, and Katrina (Christina Ricci), all of whom seem to have something to hide.
More bodies (and heads) start piling up, and Crane (and his ready assistant, Young Masmouth) find their investigation leading to the Witch of the Western Woods and to the grave of the HH himself – a Hessian mercenary on the British side killed in the Revolutionary War. The HH, in life, is portrayed by Christopher Walken, festooned with a fright wig and spooky teeth.
Crane digs up the body and finds that the skull has been removed. He deduces someone is using it to control the HH, magically.
Brom, in this story, is basically an afterthought, played by Casper Van Dien. He dresses up as the HH once to scare Crane, but beyond that he’s less a character and more an annoyance. Eventually he’s gruesomely dispatched by the HH, portrayed in many of the scenes by Ray “Darth Maul” Park (with a digitally-removed noggin).
We’re treated to a chase on horseback involving a carriage, and more head-lopping, when a town meeting at the church turns into a bloodbath: Baltus and the town fathers, gripped by guilt and paranoia, engage in a melee, with the minister and doctor (Jeffrey Jones and Ian McDiarmid) ending up dead in the ensuing fight (largely by accident) and Baltus slain by the HH, who harpoons him with a fencepost before claiming his head.
Crane, who finds the trappings of magical lore about her, suspects Katrina has been controlling the HH to gain her father’s fortune.
In truth, though, it’s Lady Van Tassel, Baltus’ wife, who has played a long, vengeful con to take control of the Van Tassel fortune, ensnaring the town fathers in the process. You see, her family was thrown out of their home by Baltus in days gone by, and left to starve.
A battle in what ends up as an exploding windmill leads to a confrontation in the western woods. The HH is given back his head, and he takes Lady Van Tassel back with him to hell.
What has to first be said about this film is how it looks. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki succeeds in draining the color out of the scenes, leaving everything a pale pallet of barely-hued grays, whites and blacks. Every so often a splash of autumnal color comes out – orange, or brown or gold. That, however, makes the reds that pop up every so often (whether the red of the Hammer-esque blood or of the plumage of a cardinal) that much more striking. Danny Elfman’s heavy, foreboding (and forbidding) soundtrack is a perfect complement to the story.
Depp, as Crane, is pitched perfectly, portraying a man by turns arrogant, terrified and whimsical, a fish out of water who isn’t even sure he likes water. It’s a part that would haunt Depp, though: you can clearly see the essence of Crane in ensuing parts, including Inspector Abberline in From Hell, Jack Sparrow in the numerous Pirates films, and Barnabas Collins in a less-successful Burton venture, Dark Shadows.
It’s hard, really, to find fault with the movie. While some parts do seem to drag at times (the carriage chase has always felt overlong to me), and there are continuity issues (Richardson, who was 41 at the time of the film’s release, is supposed to be playing a woman a good 15 years younger – really just a bit older than Ricci’s Katrina – by the reckoning of the film’s timeline), Sleepy Hollow is nothing if not likable. The cast is peppered with Burton regulars (Depp, Jones, Martin Landau, Michael Gough, Lisa Marie and Christopher Lee) and the overall look of the film is one of dark richness.
There are also fun bits to watch out for. When Crane is crossing a covered bridge at one point, for instance, a frog croaks the line “Watch Out, Ichabod,” using the same sound effect as that used in the Disney cartoon version of the Sleepy Hollow story. In fact, the entire scene seems to have been cribbed from the cartoon, and it’s rewarding for fans of the original (like myself).
I have to admit that, when I first heard that Sleepy Hollow was coming out, I wasn’t enthusiastic. I mean, turning Crane into a detective? Making it essentially a horror movie? Please.
But it works. Burton’s more miss than hit with many of his films in recent years, but Sleepy Hollow continues to head in the right direction, time after time.
Peter Kuebeck is an award-winning journalist, multi-award-winning miniature builder, gamer and horror fan.