Sleepy Hollow: High Homage

No one approaches horror with the tenacious absurdity of Tim Burton. Or at least, no one does it anymore. He’s like the old Hammer Films production company compressed into one man (you may remember seeing their Christopher Lee Dracula films in a pile of your Dad’s VHS tapes, or seeing it blur by as you changed channels past Svengoolie). This is likely why Johnny Depp frequently stars in his films—Depp has a way of swaggering through a scene, not as a bumbling funny man, but as a serious parody of one. And since Burton works more to capture the style of emotion than emotion itself, his worlds become like Depp’s performances: tactile, parodic, hilariously timid worlds tinted with sadness, like they want to be funny but just can’t help being glum.

This puts Burton’s work building worlds in line with the German Expressionists. Conrad Veidt (the silent actor famed for spectral performances in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Man Who Laughs) said in an interview, “If the decor has been conceived as having the same spiritual state as that which governs the character's mentality … both of them will move in the same rhythm.” He said it of Wiene’s Caligari, a fetishistic murder fantasy that Tim Burton exhales in every slanted tree and haunting monochrome hallway.  Burton is our modern prophet of what Veidt describes. Observe the desolate suburban beauty of the town in Edward Scissorhands to match how the protagonist sees it, or the jouncing dreamscape of the father’s memories in Big Fish.

This brings me to Sleepy Hollow, which wasn’t Burton’s last film with this rhythm, but it was one of his most startling. He lets Depp generate the world, and the world also gazes into him. His aesthetic is of the very personal fancy of someone overfed on Taste the Blood of Dracula; that person could have dreamt Sleepy Hollow (it even invites the skeletal Christopher Lee to feast on a scene). If you keep those cheesy exploitative British movies near to mind, you might stay lucid through Burton’s extravagances. You may find it enjoyable in that context. Otherwise, as I’ve heard many people say (I believe from a lens that expects too much of The Exorcist in any movie labeled as horror), you may find Sleepy Hollow foreign and altogether too weird. It's more like if Bram Stoker's Dracula became aware of itself: you have to roll with the fact that these movies used to be very odd.

Ichabod Crane (Depp) argues in court for scientific reasoning in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century law (the honorable Burgomaster, Count Christopher Lee, presiding). They send him to fog-swathed Sleepy Hollow to unravel a series of mysterious beheadings, probably just to get rid of him. Even from the carriage ride, Burton’s world skulks into dreary focus, blanched, cold, skeletal and grey, like a wintry tree. It feels tactile, ready for that special Burton darkness that contains its own blend of creepy bliss. This movie never wallows.

For now, as Crane arrives in the Hollow, Burton nurtures its mystery. A kiss by the flighty Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci) acquaints him with the rosier side of things, a backroom conference of quaking elders with the gloomy one. They play as a curtain call of British actors two generations past. Among them are Michael Gambon (the second, shoutier Dumbledore) as Katrina’s father, Michael Gough (the original Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman) as the Notary, Richard Griffiths (Harry Potter’s Mr. Dursley) as the Magistrate, and Ian McDiarmid (the Emperor from Return of the Jedi) as the Doctor. They get Ichabod quaking over his tea about the legend of a Hessian mercenary (played in flashback by Christopher Walken) who swore vengeance on those who took his head, should he walk the earth again. Crane, putting up the front of a stalwart constable, replies with a hearty sermon on how he’ll reason his way through the situation. Without any real evidence other than what we get from his gait, Depp gives you the delightful sense he has no idea what he’s doing.

His heroism is one of the films central feats. Resisting the temptation to cast a hunky chin and instead going for lanky and wild, Burton directs his hero as timid, even bedridden for a time when confronted with an actual headless horseman, dressed in terrifying shrouds of moonlit fog. He resists the temptation going the other direction too, to have Crane play as an oafish, incidental hero, who solves problems by tripping Shaggy and Scooby-style over more competent but less fortunate co-stars. He achieves a clever balance, where the hero is very unlikely but not insufferable, where he’s the likely protagonist but not an automatic Kung-Fu machine.

That cast of grand ol’ English gentlemen disappears one by one. Ichabod, with the help of Katrina and the young servant Jonathan (Marc Pickering), goes on an ill-advised walkabout through the Western Woods, a death sentence in another kind of movie, and invites such farcical horrors as a witch’s cabin and a literal portal to hell. No one’s particularly surprised by witchcraft and wizardry in this film, and indeed Ichabod has some disturbing bouts with memory over his mother (Lisa Marie Smith, then Tim Burton’s inamorata) and her dabbling in the mystic arts. Magic is just something so scary that everyone assumes it must be real.

The violence ranges from comical (a fat man gets killed for falling down) to truly chilling, such as when a child sees his mommy’s head roll over the floorboards from below. The main set piece is a carriage ride through the fog, and Burton’s ability to imagine the world in miniatures shines here. He catches the nighttime cackling in the skeletal trees as the horseman drives headlong on real horseback towards Ichabod. You can tell how much Burton still values practical effects with this scene’s visceral energy. Every harsh splinter and explosive scream feels more weighty for being on-set, and is gleefully kinetic for it. Burton puts us through his own fanciful visuals, rendering up light like a dreamy storyteller’s under-the-covers ghost tale. But he’s always accountable to reasonable limitations (at least, at this point in his career he was).

We’ve learned in his later work that Burton requires this containment. Blowouts of flighty visual excess like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland suffer for lacking the accountability that miniatures and locations give to the adventure in Sleepy Hollow. And Ichabod is a relatable tour guide through them—as much as Depp bumbles over gigantic telescope glasses he also shrinks from the coming fog like any of us would. And he dashes in to save the day too. He’s not a post-it note of heroic motivation but a complex ledger of behavior governed by real fear and reason and worry and love. As a movie hero it makes him a tad unpredictable, since he’s not bound by the macho man formula; the film’s setting evokes a similar human touch, a kind of earnest rambling. These two reflect each other and not only affirm what Veidt said all those years ago, but also that Burton does it proud. I can see how people sitting up in a theater expecting a horror movie might be disappointed. But if you love Burton (and you already know if you do), Sleepy Hollow is one of his best. A perfect pillow-fort film.

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Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Tim Burton

Andrew Kevin Walker (screenplay and story)

Kevin Yagher (story)

Washington Irving (book)

Ichabod Crane Johnny Depp
Katrina Van Tassel Christina Ricci
Lady Mary Van Tassel Miranda Richardson
Baltus Van Tassel Michael Gambon
Brom Van Brunt Casper Van Dien
Reverend Steenwyck Jeffrey Jones
The Burgomaster Christopher Lee

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