Behind the Scenes of Sleepy Hollow

When preparing to publish The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition, I did extensive background reading, but one item that escaped my notice was the shooting draft for the 1999 Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow. Thanks to a link posted on the Halloween blog, The Skeleton Key, that oversight has now been corrected. Some thoughts/observations about the shooting draft…

The shooting draft’s cover page presents some interesting sub-titular info : “Being the true storie of one Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman.” This is a nice callback to Washington Irving’s Diedrich Knickerbocker, a writing persona notorious for the confusion of fact and fiction in his recording of allegedly “true history.”

An early scene in the film (Ichabod’s dispatching north to Sleepy Hollow by the Burgomaster [Christopher Lee]) is conceived more fully in the shooting draft. This “Audition Scene” features applicants (“mostly obvious Cranks and Eccentrics”) demonstrating “Devices for crime fighting and crime solving” to New York City officials. One amateur Inventor shows off a “combination wallet and mousetrap” pickpocketing deterrent, while another Spotty Man ends up trapped inside his own contraption, the “Tompkins Self-Locking Confessional.”

Reading the shooting draft evokes a mental replay of the beloved Burton film; bits of delivered dialogue echoed inside my head. Equally rewarding are the shooting draft’s descriptions of iconic objects/figures. I love the word picture painted of the Tree of the Dead: “Its branches reach far and wide, knotted and gross, like agony captured in wood sculpture.” This looming embodiment of gloominess sports a “vertical wound in the bark, like a terrible suture, now healed” into a “mushy scar.” The grotesquerie of the Headless Horseman–his “putrid innards” and “maggot-infested muscle,” his steed of “moldering flesh”–is also emphasized. Irving’s legendary ghost-or-goblin has been realized as “Hell on horseback.”

In the film, the Horseman’s last exit (carrying Lady Van Tassel off into the Tree of the Dead) provides a macabre spectacle, but this farewell might have been even more frightful if a special effect detailed in the shooting draft was retained: “For an instant, Horseman and horse are transformed, SKELETONS OF LIGHT, entering the tree!”

I couldn’t help but chuckle at the description of Lady Van Tassel and Reverend Steenwyck’s illicit tryst: “On a blanket, a semi-naked MAN and semi-naked WOMAN are in the midst of rough SEX” (I never realized rough sex existed in late-17th Century Sleepy Hollow!). The shooting draft itself makes light of the late night scene: Asked by Young Masbath what he discovered, Ichabod says: “Something I wish I had not seen. A beast with two backs.” The astonished, naive Young Masbath takes the expression literally: “A beast with…? What next in these bewitched woods?!”

One key thematic figure from the shooting draft never made it into the film: The Crane family cat. This striking feline (black with a white paw and glowing eyes) appears in several of the flashbacks to Ichabod’s youth, and at film’s end greets the heroes upon their arrival in New York City: “THE CAT’S EYES ARE HUMAN, INTELLIGENT, KINDLY…They are Ichabod’s Mother’s eyes.” A happy ending is rendered even more felicitous, as the good, guiding spirit of Ichabod’s Mother has apparently survived the woman’s torture/murder by her puritanical husband.

The shooting draft certainly furnishes an entertaining read for completists. And for more on Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, check out my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition.

 

Baby and Maul

Joe Hill might not be as prolific a writer as his papa, Stephen King, but arguably is gifted with an even more prodigious imagination. Works such as Heart-Shaped Box, Locke and Keyand “Faun” demonstrate Hill’s knack for crafting wonderfully inventive horror and dark fantasy narratives. Hill also gives clever twists to King classics such as IT and The Stand in the epic novels NOS4A2 and The Fireman. His latest effort, The Pram, ventures into Pet Sematary territory, and conveys a strong King vibe as it takes a mundane object–the titular baby stroller–and transforms it into a source of utter dreadfulness.

Mentally reeling from a miscarriage, Brooklyn couple Willy and Marianne Halpenny relocate to rural Maine. Leading from their new home and into the woods is a bridle path bordered by overarching yew trees planted by a peculiarly old-fashioned religious movement called the Covenant of the Sorrowful Leaf. As Willy traverses the sublime space of this eldritch tree-tunnel, he indulges his festering resentment–his anger at God and the universe over the loss of his unborn child. More disturbingly, he begins to hear the sound of a baby cooing within the derelict pram he borrows from the local country-store owner to transport his purchases home. Hill’s tale strikes a perfect balance here between domestic drama, psychological disintegration, and folk horror. Creepiness steadily crescendoes (the remote, American Gothic setting features gypsy moth cocoons and a mutilated raccoon), and the narrative builds to perhaps the most harrowing climax since the night Gage Creed shambled home from the Micmac Burying Ground.

The Pram (free for Prime subscribers, or available as a 99-cent Kindle download) launches Amazon’s new Creature Feature collection today, and gets the weeklong series off to a rousing, hair-raising start.

 

Hercule Poirot in a Horror Pic?

Director/lead actor Kenneth Branagh leans unabashedly into the macabre in his latest Agatha Christie adaptation, A Haunting in Venice. His renowned detective Hercule Poirot is drawn out of retirement and into a nightmarish scene: a series of murders at a reputedly-haunted Venetian palazzo, on Halloween night (while a tempest rages without), following an unnerving seance. There are jump scares, moldering skeletons, ghostly apparitions (perhaps hallucinated), and moments of grisly violence–including a plunging impalement that puts one in mind of The Omen. At first, this might all seem a terrible bastardization of the source material, a move too far afield from the gentility of Christie’s mystery novels and their typical English-countryside milieu. The strong emphasis on horror shouldn’t work in this particular case, but it does.

Branagh’s film enfolds its audience in its lushly atmospheric central locale; an effective sense of claustrophobia is created as the viewer is trapped alongside the characters within the creepy, shadow-swathed, storm-ravaged palazzo. Rational explanation vs. (seemingly) spectral vengeance makes for an engrossing conflict, one that A Haunting in Venice overtly thematizes (Poirot’s staunch nonbelief in the otherworldly leads to a quite interesting character arc for the detective). The supernatural/fakery debate is as old as the Gothic genre itself, and that’s what Branaugh has furnished a prime example of here: the cinematic equivalent of a classic Gothic novel. Agatha Christie by way of Ann Radcliffe.

If there is one drawback to the film, it’s that the murder-mystery element proves insufficiently baffling. Certain passing references scream out to be recognized as key clues. Without having read the original Christie novel Hallowe’en Party, I guessed the murderer long before the climactic reveal. I’m no Poirot, but have watched enough mysteries to know not to trust an unlikely suspect. When the wavering finger of suspicion conspicuously failed to point at a specific character, my attention was focused in exactly that direction. A more elaborate employment of red herrings would have strengthened the plot of this hardly-lengthy (107 minutes) film.

A Haunting in Venice does not present as satisfactorily complex a mystery as the preceding Christie adaptations (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile), but succeeds as a visually lavish Gothic thriller. Haunting in all the best ways, the film makes for the perfect viewing to kick off the Halloween season.

 

Harvest Time

The October Boy is getting his screen Run at long last.

The release of the film adaptation of Norman Partridge’s classic Halloween novel has been frustratingly delayed over the past few years, but the trailer for Dark Harvest finally has dropped and the on-demand premiere date of October 13th been announced.

And, boy, am I stoked. The trailer looks very promising; the book’s 1963 setting (in a Midwestern small town) has been retained, creating strong American Gothic vibes. Judging from the trailer (and the film’s R rating for “strong horror violence and gore”), no punches are going to be pulled during the October 31st mob scene that ritualistically determines the townspeople’s fate.

The success of the film, I believe, hinges in large part on how much of Partridge’s hardboiled, Monster-Culture-savvy prose style director David Slade (30 Days of Night) can capture onscreen. Most important of all, will be the special fx employed to animate the formidable scarecrow bogy, the October Boy (aka Sawtooth Jack). Done correctly, the result could be a creature that becomes as iconic as Pumpkinhead. Realized poorly, and the whole film could flounder. The trailer only offers vague glimpses of the figure, so hopefully something really amazing is being kept under wraps.

Keeping my fingers crossed that Dark Harvest proves the viewing event of the Halloween 2023 season…

Check out the official trailer below, and click on over to Halloween Daily News for an extended breakdown of it.

Burner Foes

This Dispatches from the Macabre Republic blog has lain dormant for too many months now. With the approach of October’s high holiday season, though, it’s time for me to start posting again…

Admittedly, I approached the latest Walking Dead spinoff, Daryl Dixon, with tempered enthusiasm. I wondered (based on the post-Rick seasons of TWD) if Norman Reedus’s Daryl was too stoic a character to function as a series lead. The transplanting of the renowned Southern tracker to France also seemed terribly random–a facile excuse to incorporate famous French landmarks into the post-apocalyptic mise-en-scène (the series premiere, “Lâme Perdue,” eventually explains Daryl’s curious expatriation as a shanghai situation). Mostly, though, I feared that the spinoff would recycle the same superficial, suspense-less spectacle that has plagued The Walking Dead universe since its early years, with the zombies reduced to cacophonous clay pigeons existing to be struck down systematically by the show’s deft and deathproof protagonists.

Just such a lukewarm rehash seemed in store in Daryl Dixon‘s cold open, in which the eponymous badass battles a building full of stirred walkers. But the scene, to my pleasant surprise, didn’t prove to be another formulaic and low stakes (the viewer knows Daryl isn’t getting killed off his own show before the opening credits even roll) action sequence. Instead, a bizarre new zombie variant gets introduced. Dubbed “burners,” these walkers aren’t just toothy adversaries; their very touch sears and potentially infects flesh. The requisite suspension of disbelief here (the notion that such putrescent specimens could–like some posthuman offshoot of an Alien xenomorph–contain blood that sheds with the same effect of an acid spill) borders on the mentally herniating. Nevertheless, the idea that a would-be walker dispatcher can now end up “burned” without even venturing close enough to be bitten provides an unnerving twist. Not since the Whisperer infiltration/manipulation of the zombie horde has there been such a game-changer, and I for one, am très intrigued to see how this development plays out over the course of the spinoff series.