Close your doors and windows, for tonight the horseman comes...
I was as shocked as you were that only one Tim Burton film actually made it to my list. He is a genius and a true innovator of filmmaking but one by one, the other films of his that I liked kept being dropped from the list. Thankfully he is represented here in what I consider to be his best film. Usually when you think Tim Burton you either think of claymation or else a big balance between horror and comedy. This film however seems to be the odd one out as, comparing it to the likes of Edward Scissorhands or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this film doesn’t really say family friendly horror story. In fact, I would think twice before showing this film to any child. This ain’t a western but let’s ride anyway...
The year is 1799 and the setting is the state of New York. The character is Ichabod Crane, a police constable who is unique amongst the rest of the city’s authorities in that he believes in using science to investigate crimes properly as opposed to the simple medieval devices that are so popular. He has invented many of his own instruments to test this theory. Our story starts when he is dispatched to a small village north of the city called Sleepy Hollow. Recently there have been several murders in the village where the victims have had their heads cut off and stolen. The townspeople claim they know who the culprit is – the ghost of a Hessian mercenary who perished in the Western Woods. He now rides as a headless horseman, taking heads until his own is restored to him. While investigating the murders, Ichabod strikes up an attraction to the only daughter of the wealthiest family in town, Katrina Van Tassel. Katrina seems to have some knowledge of white magic, that she keeps secret from the rest of the village.
I just firstly want to say that I think this is the most atmospheric of all Tim Burton’s films. The town of Sleepy Hollow is just the perfect representation of a traditional gothic ghost town. There are very few colours shown in the town, just shades of black, white and grey, and yet the film is still so striking because of this absence of colour. The Western Woods is an equally imposing place, with the bare trees and all the fog hanging around. It’s just the perfect setting for a ghost story. There are some other particularly striking shots, such as a couple of scenes where we see the inside of a church that has completely white walls with a blood-red door in the middle that sticks out so sharply (pardon the pun for those who know which scenes I’m talking about). There’s another part where a child has lit a lamp that casts shadow pictures of witches on broomsticks across the wall. It definitely makes a strong impression on you at any rate. Katrina contrasts herself against the rest of the environment by being the only character to wear soft colours instead of the blacks, whites, browns and greys that the others wear. One visually stunning thing she wears is a white cloak with flower patterns on it, where the red roses are designed specifically so that they look like drops of blood.
Now to make this a true Burton film we of course have Mr Johnny Depp returning to my list as our leading man. A fun bit of trivia will say that Mr Depp has never actually seen this film because he reportedly hates the way he acts in it. That’s not hard to believe when you’ve seen his character. Not that his acting is bad, but not a lot of people would be able to watch themselves act like that without wincing or cringing just a little. His character’s many eccentricities and quirks were based off Tim Burton himself if you can believe that. Christina Ricci plays Katrina and is such a sweetheart in this film. She’s so pretty...not hot but pretty and the long flowing golden tresses suit her. Katrina and Ichabod do get some of the best dialogue scenes for themselves and their two actors do have some good chemistry to make them a believable on-screen couple. Christopher Walken has a small role as the horseman (when he has his head anyway) but it remains one of his more iconic roles, even if he doesn’t say a word in the entire film. We have some veteran British actors in the supporting cast such as Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, Jeffrey Jones and the late Michael Gough who came out of retirement to act in this. Miranda Richardson also has a part as Katrina’s stepmother and she seems almost wasted in the first half but she has much more screen time towards the end. She manages to be something of an S-MILF.
There are so many great scenes to pick out of this film so I’ll try to list the ones I liked best. I enjoyed the scene where Ichabod first arrives at the Van Tassel household and meets Katrina, playing a game where she is blindfolded and anyone she catches gets a kiss. The music and visual direction for that scene makes it pretty pleasant to watch. The bedroom scene between Ichabod and Katrina is among one of the best written in the film, almost a little theatrical in tone:
Katrina: “And what do you believe in?”
Ichabod: “Sense and reason, cause and consequence. I must leave this place where my rational mind has been so tainted by the spirit world”
Katrina: “And will you take nothing from Sleepy Hollow?”
Ichabod: “Not nothing, but a kiss from a beautiful young woman, before she knew my name or my face”
Katrina: “And without sense or reason”
The dream sequences featuring Ichabod’s mother are wonderfully directed too. They have a dreamy and fairytale quality about them, with the bright cinematography, light floaty type of music and a warming overall tone to them. This is then contrasted immediately by the shots of the white walls and the red door, almost jolting us completely. The scenes in the Western Woods are of course extremely atmospheric and I sense a few nods to David Lean’s style for Great Expectations, another film which sadly didn’t make my list.
If you want to see Sleepy Hollow because you’re expecting a big gothic haunted house style Hammer flick then perhaps you might want to think again. To me, Sleepy Hollow is less of a horror film and more of a dark fairytale with plenty of gothic overtones, almost like the Snow White film I reviewed a while back. If you’re a fan of the Washington Irving original short story then you’ll probably have guessed by now that this has little to do with it; only the town, the headless horseman and a few of the characters’ names are really the connections to the original story. As I said in the introduction, I hail this as Tim Burton’s best film and a fine achievement in art direction and writing. Hopefully one day Johnny Depp can be persuaded to see this and appreciate it when he’s not cringing at his own performance. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.