After his crazed satire Mars Attacks! crashed and burned at the box office and his proposed Superman movie flew headlong into the sun, Tim Burton retreated to a project that would be something a little more normal – well, normal for Burton, anyway. Sleepy Hollow, while surprisingly Burton’s first true stab at horror, was a natural fit for the notoriously kooky auteur, especially as it gave him the long overdue opportunity to homage the beloved output of Hammer Films and other such classic frighteners such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.
However, more than this, Sleepy Hollow, for all its monochromatic fog and crayon red blood, marked a more significant line in the sand for the celebrated, ex-Disney animator as from this point on his career would ricochet between flat blockbusters (Planet Of The Apes, Alice In Wonderland), more personal projects (Big Fish, Frankenweenie) and everything inbetween (Sweeny Todd, Dark Shadows).
The year is 1799 and troublesome, science touting detective Ichabod Crane is cast out from New York to get him out of his superior’s hair and sent upstate to the isolated town of Sleepy Hollow which has been suffering from a rash of brutal decapitations that has claimed the heads of numerous victims. Greeted by the sour faced, conspiratorial town elders who are formed of a rich businessesman, the town doctor, a reverend, the local magistrate and the notary, Crane learns that the townsfolk believe that the Headless Horseman, a vengeful spirit of a Hessian mercenary killed during the American Civil War, is responsible for this grusome bout of bonce ‘napping, but the logically minded detective is having none of it.
Attacking the case as if his quarry is mere flesh and blood, Crane soon suspects that the elders know a lot more than they’re letting on, but he has something of a awakening when he actually comes face to… well, not face – but neck stump with the Horseman himself who proves to be very real and very supernatural.
Impressively shifting his mindset for a man horribly prone to fainting fits at the first sight of any supernatural chicanery, Crane deduces that the Horseman is merely muscle for a mystery someone who is controlling the relentless spirit thanks to the ownership of his skull and sets to unravel the tangled scandals of the various elders in order to get to the bottom of matters before the mysterious mastermind finishes their plan.
Aided by Young Masbeth, a boy orphaned by the Horseman and Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of one of the elders who dabbles in witchcraft, Cane attempts to match his forensic skills against a supernatural assasin and bring his master to justice before yet more heads roll.
If anyone was going to make a whodunit involving a swooning Johnny Depp butting severed heads with a sword swinging ghost work, it was going to be Burton and compared to a lot of his later works, Sleepy Hollow remains a wonderfully melodramatic counter to some of the director’s more modern, yet noticably less inspired tales. Forging into the realms of 60’s horror with all of its visual flare and its mist shrouded forests, Burton forgoes the candy colours of Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks! in favour of a saturated look that almost render the visuals to a crisp black and white except for the fire engine red blood that the director has no qualms in spilling at a moments notice. The result may, in fact, be (and I don’t say this lightly) possibly Burton’s most handsome looking flick of his visually dazzling career that’s to the lion’s share of entire movie being shot on impressively forested-up sound stages that somehow manages to have horses charging all over them at a full gallop.
Slotting perfectly into the meticulously crafted surroundings is a perfectly Burton-y cast and I’m not just referring to the inevitable presence of Tim’s number one muse/appendage Johnny Depp – then only on his third Burton/Depp collaboration – who turns in a typically atypical performance that circumvents the usual action hero cliches by having Ichabod be an utter girl’s blouse despite the character switch from awkward teacher to flighty police detective. Joining him is Christina Ricci in what is stunningly the only Burton feature film she’s ever appeared in to date (Giant eyes? Alabaster skin? How on earth did she only do one?), but she’s somewhat overshadowed by an impressive array of extended cameos from heavily jowled character actors who provide maximum effect with minimum screen time. Michael Gambon, Ian Mcdermid, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths and Michael Gough all lend their craggy talents to the piece marvelously, giving the illusion that this really could be the kind of cast a modern day Hammer movie would have rustled up only to have them all whittled down by the cranium challenged whirling dervish that is the principal villian.
And what a villain he is! Part relentless terminator, part swashbuckling Errol Flynn type, the Horseman looks utterly resplendent as he tears through the cast (including a bemused looking Casper Van Dien and an actual child) with a sword swooping flourish that’s a credit to the small army of stuntmen and actors (Darth Maul actor Ray Park without the head, a pointly toothed, screaming Christopher bloody Walken with) that brought this imposing heavy to life and it’s a shame he’s not brought up more in conversations about great movie monsters of the 90’s.
While the movie isn’t perfect, the fact that Burton isn’t exactly Hollywood’s most effective director of action or murder mysteries doesn’t manage to stop the movie from being both exciting and intriguing, but Sleepy Hollow works best when you’re simply just drinking in its impressive atmosphere and spotting the odd in-joke like a scarecrow that suspiciously looks like Jack Skellington while a returning Danny Elfman (noticable by his absence on Ed Wood) rocks his thing. It’s also pretty fucking adept at slicing off melons too, thankfully not skimping on the gore as Burton stages numerous decap-attacks in varying ways as to not make the copious noggin chopping become samey (Richard Griffiths’ one is an absolute banger) and alongside the multiple mutilations a fair few legitimate scares too which marks it as a legitimate shame that Burton never dabbled in more overt, stylised horror much after this and the similarly brutal Sweeny Todd with its many throat slashings.
A timely reminder just how subversive Tim Burton could be when not attached solidly to Disney’s teat, Sleepy Hollow is a gorgeous throwback to Horror movies past that, much like its impressive, sword twirling villain, gives some damn good head.