No one approaches horror with the tenacious absurdity of Tim Burton (or at least, no one does it anymore). He’s like the entire Hammer Films catalog compressed into one wild silhouette. You may remember seeing their Christopher Lee Dracula films in a pile of your Dad’s VHS tapes, or catching half of all of them on different nights on Svengoolie. The feeling in those movies of violent yet softspoken play-pretend is one Burton hides in most of his films, as though he’s incapable of removing it but also worried people will stop watching if they figure out it’s in there. Sleepy Hollow is one that announces it proudly. This may not be the best Burton film, but it knows him better than most.
Johnny Depp has a way of swaggering through a scene, not as a bumbling funny man but as a serious impression of one. Since Burton works harder to capture the style of an emotion than emotion itself, his worlds become like Depp’s performances: tactile parodies, timid, tinted with sadness. They want to be funny but just can’t help being glum because they’re made from glum stuff. Like the Expressionists, Burton can’t help giving the world the feeling it looks like it would have. 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 Caligari, a fetishistic murder fantasy that Burton exhales in every slanted tree and haunting monochrome hallway. Burton materializes Veidt’s description in the desolate suburban beauty of the town in Edward Scissorhands to match how the protagonist sees it and the jouncing dreamscape of the father’s memories in Big Fish. And the funny-tinted nightmare of Sleepy Hollow.
Burton, overfed on Taste the Blood of Dracula, seems to have gone to sleep and dreamed Sleepy Hollow. He even invites the skeletal Christopher Lee to feast on a scene, like a cameo in our collective memory of other movies. If you keep those cheesy exploitative British movies near to mind, you might stay lucid through Burton’s extravagant tracing of them. Otherwise, as I’ve heard many people say, Sleepy Hollow may not sit well. It was received timidly, criticized for being weird, and deflects the common definition of “horror.” It’s a throwback to an era when horror films were exploitative and incredibly odd. It’s Flesh for Frankenstein sanded down to match 90s sensibilities (almost).
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. Yet the plot is treated with light defiance – neither the court nor Ichabod particularly care what happens. It feels ready for that special Burton darkness that contains its own blend of creepy-silly bliss and starts delivering immediately.
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 Star Wars) as the Doctor. They get Ichabod quaking over his tea about the legend of a Hessian mercenary (played in flashback by Christopher Walken and in action scenes by Ray Park, better known as Darth Maul) 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 film's central feats. Resisting the temptation to cast a well-endowed chin and instead of 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 of going the other direction too, to have Crane play as an oafish, incidental hero, who solves problems by tripping like Jar Jar Binks over more competent but less fortunate co-stars. He achieves a clever balance, where the hero is unlikely yet not insufferable. He’s the likely protagonist, even if he isn’t particularly good at it.
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, Tim Burton’s then-lover) and her dabblings in the mystic arts. The world of Sleepy Hollow is not one where the people assume that magic is good, but they believe in it. It’s so scary that they assume 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 weightier for being on-set, gleefully kinetic. Burton puts us through his own fanciful visuals, rendering light like a dreamy under-the-covers ghost tale. But he’s always accountable to physical limitations (at least, at this point in his career he was). Sleepy Hollow being believable is even more interesting than being scary.
The cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki reanimates the genre conventions in Sleepy Hollow. He’s the reason I can throw out those flowery descriptions of the trees and fog and still be confident that they are less than the truth, rather than an overstatement. From a stark chapel to a sunlit garden, a moonlit road and a crusty witch’s house, Lubezki gives Burton the entire aesthetic he needs to believe in the beauty of his creepy universe. The fact that this is their only collaboration in light of how much the visuals have detracted from the last decade of Burton’s career, is a travesty, like if Spielberg only used Janus Kamiński once. Burton needs to give Lubezki a call because Sleepy Hollow, other than a few penetratingly outdated uses of CGI, is a visually perfect horror homage.
We’ve learned in his later work that Burton requires containment – the visual fidelity of his crew offers the control over his ideas that is required for them to be appreciated as they should. Blowouts of visual excess like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Alice in Wonderland suffer for lacking the accountability that sets and locations give to the adventure in Sleepy Hollow (imagine if Lubezki shot them).
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. His behavior is complicated, governed by real fear and reason and worry and love. He’s not only scared or amazing. As a movie hero, it makes him a tad unpredictable and the film’s setting evokes a similar human touch, a kind of earnest rambling. This director and actor 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.
This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, March 25, 2019
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Paramount Pictures/Summit Entertainment