“We have murders in New York without benefit of ghouls and goblins,” says Ichabod Crane. Baltus Van Tassel responds, “You’re a long way from New York, constable.”
I was first exposed to Washington Irving’s 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow through the 1947 Disney animated film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (which comprised of two lengthy shorts The Wind In the Willows and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). When I saw South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut in the summer of 1999, one of the trailers shown was for a live action feature adaptation of Sleepy Hollow made by none other than Tim Burton himself. I was so excited to see it that Fall, but was ultimately unable to see it (I was not yet old enough to go see R-rated films by myself, and no one would accompany me to go see it). I would have to wait four years to see it on the big screen at Museum of the Moving Image during their Tim Burton retrospective in late 2003. I enjoyed every minute of it despite having seen it on DVD several times, and I was just so glad to have finally seen it on the big screen.
1999’s Sleepy Hollow follows an 18th century New York City inspector named Ichabod Crane who is dispatched to the small town of Sleepy Hollow in upstate NY to investigate a series of grisly decapitations. Once there, he has to contend with the superstitions of the townspeople and their belief that the decapitations are the work of a headless horseman who has risen from the grave. Tim Burton’s direction is most assured, making Sleepy Hollow as an homage to the classic horror films he enjoyed growing up (particularly the ones produced by Hammer Films). Burton also assembled quite an impressive cast: Johnny Deep (as Ichabod Crane), Christina Ricci (as Katrina Van Tassel), Michael Gambon (as Baltus Van Tassel), Miranda Richardson (as Lady Van Tassel), Richard Griffiths (as Magistrate Philipse), Michael Gough (as Notary Hardenbrook), Ian McDiarmid (as Doctor Lancaster), Casper Van Dien (as Brom Van Brunt), Christopher Walken (as the Hessian Horseman), Jeffrey Jones (as Reverend Steenwyck), Steven Waddington (as Killian), Marc Pickering (as young Masbath), and Christopher Lee (as the Burgomaster).
Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay doesn’t just feature a terrific supernatural murder mystery but also a story about a man coming to grips with his haunted past (Ichabod’s mother was a witch condemned to death by his father, a religious preacher). Walker’s screenplay is complemented by the outstanding cast as well as the Oscar-winning production design by Rick Heinrichs (it’s hard to believe that the forest was built on soundstages since it looked so real, and the town looked like it had actually existed). Chris Lebenzon and Joel Egron’s editing keeps the film moving at a good pace while Emmanuel Lubezki’s Oscar-nominated cinematography bathes the film with an eerie atmosphere that grabs a hold of you and doesn’t let go until the end credits roll. The makeup design by Kevin Yagher and Peter Owen was excellent, as were the Oscar-nominated costume designs by Colleen Atwood. The special effects by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) were so superb and integrated into the visual palette that I didn’t even realize at first how many there actually were.
My favorite element of the film (so many to choose from) would have to be Danny Elfman’s hauntingly beautiful score. His music harkens back to the early classical style he used to score his films (late 1980s/early 1990s), but with a more mature approach. It is appropriately gothic and romantic, and at times will scare the crap out of you (it is first and foremost a horror film score). The orchestra is dominated by woodwinds and finely complemented by an appropriately haunting choir. Overall, Sleepy Hollow is an impressive film to enjoy and ranks as one of Tim Burton’s best efforts (in a career with so many wonderful films).