“Villainy wears many masks, none of which so dangerous as virtue.” – Ichabod Crane
After Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! failed to find an audience with the majority of cinema goers, the second half of the 90s was looking bad for Tim Burton number-wise and although the aforementioned movies found a cult audience later down the line, they both failed to bring in the bucks at the box office. Added to that disappointment was the fact that after a year’s work the much-muted Superman Lives that Burton was due to direct was pulled for budgetary reasons.
The falling through of Superman, however, would free Burton up to direct one of the finest blockbuster movies that the 90s had to offer. Hold onto your heads as we take a trip to Sleepy Hollow.
After a string of beheadings in the small hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, police Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent from New York to investigate. Considered a bit of an outsider by his counterparts, he is interested in using new but so far unproven methods of investigation such as autopsies and fingerprinting.
Staying with local family, the Van Tassels, he catches the attention of their daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci) much to the anger of her love interest Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien). He also soon learns that the town believe a supernatural headless horseman (Christopher Walken) who has risen from the grave is behind the murders. Refusing to believe in the supernatural, he goes about his investigation until coming across the horseman for himself.
With help from Katrina and a young orphaned boy, Masbeth, the trio discover that in the town’s woods within the Tree of the Dead lies the doorway that the horseman uses to enter this world from hell. From there they discover that the head of the horseman has been stolen and he is being controlled by somebody in the village.
His investigation leads him to Katrina’s stepmother, Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson), whom he discovers has witnessed the beheading of the horseman and, in exchange for her soul, she would be able to avenge her family, who had lost their land to Katrina’s father in the years previous. With his head returned to him, the horseman drags Lady Van Tassel to hell with him, thus solving the mystery of Sleepy Hollow.
An homage to the Hammer Horror films of the past, Sleepy Hollow manages to pull many strings at once. Scary, suspenseful and sometimes comedic it manages to merge this all successfully to create a wonderful film.
As the first horror film and first real period film of his career, Burton manages to create a world where it is very easy to believe the supernatural exists. The town, which was created via sets especially for this movie in the UK, is stunning and really pays testament to the UK film industry and the people that it employs.
The ambience is also right on the money and the use of light, dark and fog creates the sort of creepy atmosphere that is missing from the majority of horror films now released, which, personally, I think is a shame.
Another plus point for this movie is its reluctance to use computer-generated effects and use the older methods of stop animation. Not only does it look fantastic, but it fits the mood of the piece much better.
Set against these visuals is a score by long time Burton co-contributor Danny Elfman who, as with all his previous work, manages to further enhance the atmosphere and creates such wonderful tension you are not sure when you might expect the horseman to pop up on screen.
Another long term Burton co-worker that pops up in this movie is, of course Johnny Depp, who takes on the role as Ichabod Crane as less of the strong leading man and of more, as in his own words: “a frightened little girl”.
As the audience follow his adventure his reactions are the same as theirs, although, of course, not of such a heightened scale. His quest to seek the truth behind the beheadings as well as his own internal conflict this raises inside him in his past, makes him a very likeable and ultimately brave character. It is hard to believe the studio pushed for Liam Neeson and Daniel Day-Lewis to take this role instead.
Depp is well supported by leading lady Christina Ricci (why isn’t she in more films?) who plays the not-so-innocent Katrina with a strong will. Miranda Richardson embellishes her role as the villainous Lady Van Tassel with almost pantomime glee and there is a strong supporting cast to hold them up including Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gough, Michael Gambon and the wonderful Christopher Walken, who plays the horseman without speaking a word, but can fill the audience with horror with just one twist of his face.
Released just after Halloween 1999, Sleepy Hollow made over $30,000,000 in its opening weekend, giving Burton a bona fide hit to see the decade out with. His next movie would be the first to be officially called a reimagination and would split audiences down the middle.
Next time I’ll be making a visit to Planet Of The Apes.
Sleepy Hollow Key Info:Released: 19th November 1999 (US) / 7th January 2000 (UK)Distributed By: Paramount PicturesBudget: $80,000,000Box Office Gross: $206,071,502Best DVD Edition: Sleepy Hollow DVD