SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Graphic Horror Violence and Gore, and for a scene of Sexuality

SleepyHollow poster

Directed by: Tim Burton

Written by: Andrew Kevin Walker

(based on the short story THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW by Washington Irving)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Martin Landau & Christopher Lee

Published at the beginning of the 19th century, Washington Irving’s “Legend Of Sleepy Hollow” has become a staple tale read by many schools and a widely celebrated classic ghost story. Tim Burton’s approach to tackling this material for a feature film would take lots of creative liberties with the story. After all something that works as words on a page might not necessarily translate perfectly to a visual art form. SLEEPY HOLLOW made a huge splash upon its release in 1999 and (even though I was only nine years old) I can still remember seeing the creepy commercials and ads for it. Over a decade later, SLEEPY HOLLOW holds up as a fantastic crowd-pleasing horror flick and one of Tim Burton’s best works.

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Near the dawn of the eighteenth century, constable Ichabod Crane is tired of the barbaric practices by law enforcement. Enamored with new-fangled ideas such as autopsies and fingerprints, Crane is sent by his superiors to the small country town of Sleepy Hollow. In a mere two weeks, the community has seen three murders. All victims were beheaded and the heads are still missing. Crane is told by the town elders that the murders were committed by a ghostly figure known as the Headless Horseman. Ichabod is naturally skeptical, but finds out that the horseman is very real and lopping off people’s heads left and right. It’s up to Ichabod with help of an orphaned child Masbath and love-interest Katrina Van Tassel to find out why the horseman is killing as put a stop to his reign of terror.

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As with most of Burton’s films, SLEEPY HOLLOW is set in a darkly tinted world where the sun never shines. While this can be a little tedious in some of Burton’s other stories, it suits this tale quite well. The atmosphere captured the classical tone of an old Hammer horror film. It also isn’t necessarily taking itself seriously the whole way through as a silly sense of humor makes itself quite well-known within the first scene that Crane appears. The reworked story is a mix of a mystery and a supernatural slasher. One of the issues found Andrew Kevin Walker’s script is that SLEEPY HOLLOW can sometimes focus too much on the mystery at work, but also follows a traditional slasher formula at other points. It’s creative story, but also a slightly uneven blend of two different types of movies.

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Walker’s screenplay works on the general premise of Irving’s short story and taking it in whole new directions, but also pays a nice homage to the original tale during one scene in particular (the character is Brom is also included in the film). The fog-laded setting is brought to life by stellar set design and the film does work at transporting you into another world. This creepy tone is boasted by a phenomenal score from Burton regular Danny Elfman at the top of his game.

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As far as the cast is concerned, almost everyone does a damn good job. Johnny Depp has inhabited a vast variety of oddball characters with their own unique quirks. Ichabod Crane is a fine name on that considerable list of performances. He follows the predictable coward turned reluctant hero and gets a lot of solid laughs for it. Christina Ricci is bland as the love interest and the weakest character here. Orphaned Masbath is a close second. Unfortunately, they serve as his sidekicks. Fortunately, they don’t take up a huge amount of screen time. The side characters and other familiar faces (Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, etc.) all make their performances stick out in various ways. The real scene-stealer is Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman (glimpsed in an elongated flashback sequence).

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Besides a couple of iffy characters and a mixed bag of two distinct formulas, the other problem I have with SLEEPY HOLLOW is that Tim Burton doesn’t know where to draw the line at some points. The film gets downright campy in a few areas (with some aged CGI). Back in 1999, I probably would have thought these moments were a little too comically fake as well. The movie does shine in its kills, nearly all of which involve beheading of some kind. You might think decapitation would get old very fast, but each death has its own unique spin on it (in one case, quite literally). The design of the Headless Horseman is great. It’s been said that the more you show the monster in a horror film, the less frightening it becomes. That’s not the case with this flick, because the Horseman looks phenomenal and is always intimidating.

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As the poster tagline states, heads do indeed roll. Your eyes might roll too due to some silly moments, two dumb characters, and a somewhat confused screenplay. However, the film works fantastically as a whole. It has held up very well over time and will continue to so as it has a rewatchability that most films of this type lack. It’s a spooky ghost story, intriguing murder mystery and fun slasher. What more could you want in an atmospheric take on an old-school horror tale?

Grade: A-

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