Year of Release: 1999
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, Jeffrey Jones, Ian McDiarmid, Lisa Marie
Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Andrew Kevin Walker
Running Time: 100 Minutes (1 hour, 40 minutes)
Academy Awards: Best Art Direction.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Cinematography, Costume Design.
Most of us have been exposed at least once in our lifetimes to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, whether it was through Washington Irving's short story, the Disney animated film adaptation, or around a dark campfire. It's a safe bet that the younger we were when we first heard the story, the more it scared us. Now Tim Burton has provided us with a live action film version of the legend, and this one is definitely not for the younger kiddies.
Sleepy Hollow is a macabre fairy tale given a breath of life as only Tim Burton could do it. The strongest aspect of the film is without doubt the breathtaking visuals. It is a rare occasion for a film this visually striking to come along, and it is even rarer for such beauty to be found in the form of a horror film. Don't be mistaken, this version of Sleepy Hollow is unquestionably a horror film; the tag line for the movie is "Heads Will Roll," and roll they do. A lot. But Sleepy Hollow looks so stunning that you will forget at times that you're watching a horror film (that is, until the Horseman shows up again). Burton unfolds a canvas before us that is almost like stepping into the landscape of a nightmare. Dark shades of blue and grey fill the painting, frequently interrupted by a splash of bright red. Twirling mist that seems to have a life of its own covers the ground and the air at night, and around the small town of Sleepy Hollow are dense forests filled with gnarled, twisted, and menacing old trees that surround you no matter which way you turn. And all of a sudden you hear those galloping footsteps approaching you faster and faster, death itself riding on a mounted steed. Remember the nightmares you had when you were ten years old? Sleepy Hollow is one of those nightmares, put to film.
Burton has stated that Sleepy Hollow is partially intended as a sort of homage to the horror films produced by Hammer Studios in the 60s and 70s. If you've seen many of those films then you'll be able to make the connections: blood that is brighter and redder than it should be, quite a bit of gore that is obviously fake but still a lot of fun, and bad British accents. Even Christopher Lee, that staple of Hammer films who played characters ranging from Dracula to the Mummy to Frankenstein's Monster, has a bit part in this movie. But Sleepy Hollow is more than just a tribute to the Hammer films. The production values for this one are top-notch -- the cinematography, costumes, and especially the art direction are all of award-worthy quality. Composer Danny Elfman, who has provided us with many memorable film scores over the years, also does wonderful work on the music for this movie.
As for the cast, Johnny Depp is terrific in the role of Ichabod Crane. Depp's Crane bears almost no resemblance to the original schoolteacher character conceived by Washington Irving, but Sleepy Hollow does not pretend to be a faithful adaptation, and it isn't. It takes the basic concepts of the original story and makes them much darker. Depp's version of Ichabod Crane is by turns serious and hilarious, and the versatile actor manages to make both aspects of his personality wonderfully believable. Christina Ricci is Katrina Van Tassel, a resident of Sleepy Hollow who becomes Crane's love interest and may know more about the secrets surrounding the Horseman than she would like to reveal. Christopher Walken has a rather small part to play in the film, but his scenes are without doubt among the most memorable in the movie. He is well-suited to his role, and he heads in the right direction with it. Rounding out the cast are such talents as Miranda Richardson and Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine from The Phantom Menace), along with perennial Burton stars Michael Gough (Alfred the Butler from Batman, virtually unrecognizable here), Jeffrey Jones, and Lisa Marie. An incredible cast, to say the least, all put to good use in the film. I was hoping to see more screen time for Christopher Lee, but his role is only a cameo. Nevertheless, it's great to see him back in action and to know that he still has those piercing eyes and that incredible voice.
The film weakens at the end when it descends into modern horror movie clichés, including a resolution to the unnecessary whodunit aspect of the story and a hand-to-hand fight between the hero and the villain. Still, the film as a whole is very solid, very enjoyable, and an incredible visual treat. Burton's Headless Horseman is bound to become the defining version from this point forward, and Sleepy Hollow is a film that will undoubtedly trouble the dreams of many youngsters for years to come. Horror films do not get much more fun than this, and they certainly couldn't be any more beautiful or atmospheric.