Tim Burton; just hearing his name probably brings to mind images of Michael Keaton in the Caped Crusader’s first modern film, Johnny Depp as a man with blades for fingers, or just basic black-and-white surreal imagery. And while I haven’t seen all of Burton’s films, I can say that the ones I have seen are ones that I enjoy immensely. Such is the case for Burton’s 1999 horror flick Sleepy Hollow, which, while not as scary as some would like it to be, still has some good scares and thrills to it, as well as a fun mystery involving witchcraft, political maneuvering, and an undead Horseman who rides again.
The film stars Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane, a police constable in New York at the end of the 18th Century; appalled at the continued use of medieval methods of torture and “science,” he continues to insist to the mayor, played by Christopher Lee, that more modern investigative methods be used. As a test, the mayor sends Crane to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders in which the victims have been decapitated. When he arrives, he meets the most powerful men in the town, Baltus Van Tessel (Michael Gambon), Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffery Jones), Magistrate Samuel Phillipse (Richard Griffiths), Dr. Thomas Lancaster (Ian McDiarmid), and Notary James Hardenbrook (Michael Gough); they confide in him that the murdered people’s heads were not found, having been taken by the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken), who, in life, was a Hessian soldier who killed for the fun of it and who was killed and decapitated by his own sword. The townspeople are convinced that the Horseman is an undead creature of Hell, but Crane sets about proving the science behind the murders, with the help of Katrina Van Tessel (Christina Ricci) and Young Masbeth (Marc Pickering). This case pushes Crane’s skills as a scientist and as a detective to their absolute limits, and may make him believe in things that go bump in the night.
This film features a stellar cast; when I was watching the opening scene, I was pleased to see the late great master of horror Christopher Lee in a supporting role, but as the credits rolled, every other actor was someone who I greatly appreciate in terms of their acting chops and the characters they’ve portrayed. I mean, come on: Saruman, Emperor Palpatine, Dumbledore (II), and Captain Jack Sparrow, to name a few, all in one movie? That is a great cast. And, thankfully, they all play their roles well. Depp does well as Ichabod Crane, and while the whole cliché of the doctor/scientist being squeamish around blood is a little overplayed, it does make sense for his character; he’s a very methodical and logical person, and to have to deal with things both scientific and supernatural in the real world proves quite stressful for him. Also, the backstory that is revealed about Crane’s childhood is a little much, but it doesn’t take up too much of the plot. The conspiracy behind the scenes in Sleepy Hollow is also a lot of fun, giving a bit more of a detective element to what could have been a straightforward slasher flick. Speaking of slashers, Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman, while a fairly brief role, is great fun, and you can tell that he’s enjoying himself immensely.
While watching this movie, I kept thinking back to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey, Jr., and it’s not too surprising, seeing as the atmosphere and visual style is quite similar to that film, and the fact that a mystery is involved. Personally, I really like this kind of style, the kind that takes place in the past but also has elements that I know or believe weren’t a part of that period; for example, a lot of Crane’s whacky medical tools and other instruments really made me chuckle, as it was a bit odd to see how someone might have operated on a corpse back before we had more modern tools and techniques. Speaking of that, one of the problems I originally had with the movie was the fact that Crane sets out to use science and reason to solve these murders, but much of the film deals with Crane fighting the Headless Horseman, a very supernatural being, while not using a lot of his scientific techniques. However, upon further reflection, I realized that the science Crane was advocating for was more in the behind the scenes detective work, making it tougher to pick up on; the police department that Crane works for still uses Medieval methods of investigation and torture to get results, and doesn’t even usually perform autopsies; and he wants to change that by showing how the guilty can be found through logic, and not through the supposed damnation or guilt weighing down their souls. That is the science that Crane really wants to bring to the police force, and that is the science that helps him figure out the mystery behind the Headless Horseman in the end.
This movie, while it has its scary moments, was mostly gory, which is fine, because the kills that the Headless Horseman accumulates are pretty creative. Also, those with a weak stomach may find some of the scenes in this movie to be a bit unsettling, as there are some scenes where a few gallons of blood spill and spurt out of people and things.
Sleepy Hollow is a great deal of fun; it’s atmosphere, cast, effects, and story all make for an enjoyable and thrilling adventure where detective work, science, and magic all clash and push the people involved to their limits. This is definitely a film worth losing your head over.
Written by Joey Sack