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An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

PUBLISHED: 08:29 14 April 2018

Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane with his self-designed scientific instruments in Tim Burton's gothic masterpiece Sleepy Hollow. Photo: Pathé

Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane with his self-designed scientific instruments in Tim Burton's gothic masterpiece Sleepy Hollow. Photo: Pathé

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Films with re-watch value, movies with a unique quality, will become the classics of the future. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.

Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton's gothic masterpiece Sleepy Hollow. Photo: PathéJohnny Depp as Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton's gothic masterpiece Sleepy Hollow. Photo: Pathé

Sleepy Hollow; dir: Tim Burton; starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Christopher Lee. Cert: 15 (1999)

While Tim Burton’s 1990 adult fairytale Edward Scissorhands is all ready accepted as a contemporary classic, that shouldn’t be the only Burton movie in the Hollywood Hall of Fame.

Burton’s other masterwork is his distinctive take on Washington Irving’s American folk tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow which examines the supernatural story of The Headless Horseman. Armed with a suitably Gothic score from regular musical collaborator Danny Elfman, Sleepy Hollow finds Burton back on his favourite creative turf breathing new life into dream-like horror stories like some modern-day nephew of The Brothers Grimm.

Christina Ricci as Katrina Van Tassel in Tim Burton's gothic masterpiece Sleepy Hollow. Photo: PathéChristina Ricci as Katrina Van Tassel in Tim Burton's gothic masterpiece Sleepy Hollow. Photo: Pathé

One of the strengths of Tim Burton’s movies is that he creates complete worlds for his characters to exist in. These are alternative realities where the heightened sensibilities of Tim Burton’s surreal imagination appear perfectly plausible.

It is the same of Sleepy Hollow as it was of Edward Scissorhands’ Californian suburbs or Batman’s dark, gargoyle-topped skyscrapers in Batman. These places are undeniably quirky but they equally seem real because Burton always plays it straight. There is plenty of humour in the film but it is never used to undermine the story.

Sleepy Hollow takes place during the dying days of the 18th century. Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane, a queasy New York City Constable, who is dispatched upstate by a fearsome judge (Christopher Lee), to get to the bottom of a series of grisly murders. It would appear that the good folk of Sleepy Hollow have been visited by a ghostly horseman who has been decapitating unsuspecting townsfolk who have been wandering about late at night.

Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane and Christina Ricci as Katrina Van Tassel in Tim Burton's gothic masterpiece Sleepy Hollow. Photo: PathéJohnny Depp as Ichabod Crane and Christina Ricci as Katrina Van Tassel in Tim Burton's gothic masterpiece Sleepy Hollow. Photo: Pathé

Tim Burton’s take on this classic ghost story is both atmospheric, and darkly humorous. He creates a wonderful sense of place. The limited colour palette give this film almost a black and white feel. But, as good as the visuals are, it is the brilliant casting and the straight as a die performances that really make this film stand out.

Depp’s Ichabod Crane is suitably quirky while also being sympathetic and intelligent. Burton allows Depp to add a little humour into the mix but keeps its tightly under control. His main characteristic is the fact that he is squeamish at the sight of blood and is frequently put in his place by Christina Ricci’s cool and aloof Katrina Van Tassel, who appears to run rings around Depp’s fish-out-water constable.

Miranda Richardson eats up the scenery as Van Tassel’s wicked stepmother and steals every scene she’s in. Shot in this country, as the majority of Burton’s films are, the town’s great and the not-so-good are portrayed by some of the giants of the British theatre including Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough and Christopher Lee.

Suffice to say that not all of them make it to the end of the film but they have fine time lurking in the shadows before they are struck down by the mysterious horseman. Crane does not believe in vengeful spectres, he believes in science, and comes with a bag full of self-designed gadgets and gizmos to prove the superstitious townsfolk wrong.

The pace and tension are both kept up throughout the film, aided and abetted by Danny Elfman’s dramatic score. Tim Burton has managed to create a perfect synthesis of American folk tale and a Hammer horror film, full of Gothic touches and nerve-tingling suspense.

Several years ago Terry Gilliam tried to put the Brothers Grimm into one of their own fairytales and fell flat on his face. Here Tim Burton provides a stunning illustration of the sort of movie that he should have produced.

The film has a dream-like innocence about it even though it deals with a nightmarish world. It’s a reflection of our world, of our darker natures, and yet its not of our world. It’s an alternate reality and works as the Brothers Grimm stories did as an allegory.

The images Burton produces look real and convincing, the atmosphere is rich and haunting, the performances are convincing and yet if you were examine it too closely it would disappear like a ghostly apparition.

Nevertheless, this is a stunning film and a wonderful example of how director, composer, writer (Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote the screenplay for Se7en) and cast can work together to make something truly special and can bear repeated viewing. Excellent.

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