Re-watching Sleepy Hollow (1999): One of the most beautiful horror films ever made?

As Halloween approaches, what better way to spend a cold and foggy Sydney evening then curled up on the sofa watching a spooky film? Some friends and I re-watched Sleepy Hollow (1999) and honestly, I can’t help but feel that this little gem is underrated. Yes, Burton has become far less interesting in recent years (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen Big Eyes, and Frankenweenie and Sweeney Todd were both astonishing films), and yes, these days he cannibalizes his own work so that everything feels like something you’ve seen a hundred times before, but something about this particular horror goth confection just works.

Maybe it’s the brooding atmosphere the cinematographers created (sets were built and feats of lighting and smoke and colour paid off – you can read some interesting behind the scenes on this here), maybe it’s Danny Elfman’s beautiful, haunting score, maybe it’s the fun of playing spot-the-Harry-Potter-actor (hint: there’s a lot), maybe it’s the puzzle box script or Johnny Depp back when he was indie or Miranda Richardson stealing every scene she’s in, or the theme of reason and logic versus emotion and heart. Sure, the romance between Ricci and Depp is a bit naff, but it’s all part of the charm.

The Cast

Johnny Depp is an awkward topic of conversation these days (why oh why did you not stay with Vanessa Paradis?) given a raging court case with ex Amber Heard and accusations of domestic violence. It can be hard to put knowledge of his real life dramas back of mind when watching him in a film, especially when many feel he has been dialing his characters up to 11 since the second POTC film. In Sleepy Hollow, he walks a difficult tightrope between leading man and character actor and in my opinion, pulls it off with aplomb. It’s one of Depp’s best performances in my humble opinion.

Police Constable Ichabod Crane comes to Sleepy Hollow from New York City to investigate a series of murders in the village of Sleepy Hollow by a mysterious Headless Horseman. His cowardice, snobbery (as a city slicker he sees himself as superior to the rural town he comes to deliver justice to) and childhood traumas make him an interesting lead. Crane is prepared to place women and children in danger before he himself is risked, but also shows courage, grit and determination in vowing to deal with a supernatural creature he only half believes in.

Christina Ricci as the leading lady, Katrina Van Tassel, is so-so and she and Depp have some cringe romantic lines, which in some ways simply add to the charm of the film (it’s so cheesy it’s fun). It’s also fun to see her play a different part (even if the age gap between her and Depp is a little creepy). Miranda Richardson as Katrina’s step-mum is, of course, brilliant (you can always rely on Ms Richardson to deliver her A game and she has an important role in this story). She’s also very beautiful. The supporting cast (including Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid and Michael Gough) are all good and each has an important part to play. Christopher Lee has a fun cameo and Christopher Walken is astonishingly memorable in his key part. One things certain, Burton put together a dream cast for this film.

The Visuals

Burton has always been known as a visual story-teller and that’s certainly the case with Sleepy Hollow. The contrast between the city and the village is cleverly done through use of fog and colour (or lack thereof), with each and every shot looking like a painting. The costumes are also extremely rich, with Miranda Richardson and Christina Ricci especially, having some beautiful outfits. There are some nifty steampunk touches too which I appreciated, curtesy of Crane’s newfangled detective contraptions from the city.

Some images really stand out … the young child watching a lit Halloween lantern cast shadows on his bedroom wall, the fog creeping as the horseman approaches, snuffing out the village’s torches, Crane’s bird in a cage trick, blood spurting up a pumpkin scarecrow, the way heads spun, the very landscape like a dream culminating in the Tree of the Dead.

Many reviewers at the time noted this is an old fashioned movie, doing visuals lovingly and painstakingly with every ounce of the sweat and tears of the production team evident on the screen. Ian Mcdiarmid was quoted as saying (having just come off the set of Star Wars: Phantom Menace):

Having come from the blue-screen world of Star Wars it was wonderful to see gigantic, beautifully made perspective sets and wonderful clothes, and also people recreating a world. It’s like the way movies used to be done.

For all it’s horror and death, this is a very beautiful film and it makes the journey memorable and worth watching again and again. I notice a new loving detail every time.

The Music

A lot of people feel Danny Elfman’s music sounds the same across Burton films. I’ve always disagreed with that. I think he’s a very good composer and when he’s inspired, his work is truly beautiful. Just think of Edward Scissorhands, Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride and the Batman films. I’d add Sleepy Hollow to that count. His music for this film tells its own story, full of eerie choirs, violins and crashing horror sounds. It’s a strong enough soundtrack I can happily listen to it on Spotify. The music really adds to the dread of the film and it wouldn’t be as good without it.

The Themes

I loved the motif running through the film about masculine coded reason and logic versus feminine coded emotion, imagination and superstition. It is only when Crane works with both sides that he is able to crack the crime and find love. I also thought the film did a good job of showing why Crane had fallen so hard on the side of logic (“I am beaten down by it”) whilst allowing nods to Hammer Horror and gothic horror tropes (for this is a film that nods to past films including the original Karloff Frankenstein). It really adds a little something to rewatches when you see how the scriptwriter wove this theme throughout the plot and character interactions.

To conclude …

I’m one of those people that just can’t get enough of Burton doing gothic horror. My favourite films by him all edge into that territory … from Batman Returns to Sleepy Hollow to Corpse Bride to Sweeney Todd, something about his lonely, constructed worlds speak to me. Though Sleepy Hollow was popular at the time, it’s a Burton film I hear less and less about as time goes on. I suggest it’s high time people dusted off their DVD jackets or hightailed it to a streaming service. There’s a lot to enjoy in this bloody, eerie tale. It may have little to do with the original Washington Irving story, but it remains a fun jaunt through a beautifully constructed world that could only exist at the movies.

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