On this date back in 1999, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, a feature-length adaptation of Washington Irving’s legendary story, premiered in theaters. The film has aged finely in the two decades since its release, and has become (not just in my household, I’m sure) an autumnal classic that calls for annual viewing. Here on the twentieth anniversary of its first beaming onto movie screens, I would like to offer my thoughts on the dark brilliance and lasting greatness of Sleepy Hollow.
Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a multi-genre piece (combining elements of mock-heroic comedy, local-color sketching, romantic-triangle drama, and ghost-story telling), and Burton’s film clearly follows the tale’s venerable lead. The key distinction, though, is that the genres woven into the 1999 movie are not an exact match of those in the source text. In the film, the Headless Horseman is a tangible threat and not just a bit of frisson-seeking fireside lore, and thus pushes the action squarely into the realm of horror. There’s also an element of the police procedural here, as Ichabod Crane is recast as a a New York City constable rather than a Connecticut pedagogue. Even a whiff of steampunk can be detected, in the strange gadgets the investigating Ichabod carries in his supped-up satchel. Finally, while Irving’s story employs some ambiguity concerning the climactic events (supernatural chase or native prank?), Burton’s effort offers a full-blown murder mystery.
Perhaps one of the most appreciable aspects of Sleepy Hollow is its ability to pay homage to a beloved narrative while simultaneously taking it in a new direction; Burton does not just rehash, but reshapes “The Legend” into something strikingly original. For example, the iconic climax of Irving’s tale (Brom/The Horseman’s pursuit of, and pumpkin-tossing at, Ichabod) is transferred to a much earlier scene (in which Brom is explicitly identified as the antagonist). Burton returns, though, to Sleepy Hollow’s famous covered bridge in a subsequent scene that has both Brom and Ichabod teaming up to battle the actual Horseman. In the source text, crossing the bridge is supposed to deliver Ichabod to a safe remove that proves anything but once the Horseman launches his gourd. This dynamic is reflected in the terrific scene in the film where the frightened villagers seek sanctuary within the hallowed grounds of the church, yet the fiendishly clever Horseman manages to draw out and decapitate Baltus.
The plot of Sleepy Hollow is no doubt complex, and grows increasingly intricate as the film unfolds. It’s gruesomely obvious that the Horseman is doing the killings, but a greater question–at whose bidding is this undead mercenary strategically picking people off?–persists. Ichabod’s investigation uncovers a conspiracy involving a cadre of town fathers, as well as the occult machinations of a scorned woman hellbent on revenge against those who dispossessed her family. By the very nature of its mystery trappings, the film invites repeated screenings: what at first appeared to be passing, insignificant details in retrospect form key pieces of the puzzle picture. The viewer caught up in the whodunit aspect the first time around can later revel in the “howdunit,” the filmmaker’s masterful techniques for seeding clues into the narrative. Furthermore, Sleepy Hollow forms a rewarding rewatch because of the subtlety of Burton’s visual artistry. I must have seen this movie umpteen times before I caught glimpse of the ghost faces that briefly, almost subliminally, manifest in the flaring fireplace flames just prior to the Horseman’s invasion of the ill-fated Killians’ home.
Beyond its rich plot, Sleepy Hollow succeeds because it is firmly grounded in an immersive setting. When making the film, an entire town–along with the leaf-carpeted woods on its outskirts–was constructed on set. This commitment to physical, structural detail creates a strong sense of place, giving viewers the impression that they are witnessing a slice of life in an actual late-18th Century village. Anyone who has ever walked the sloping landscape of the real-life Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (where Irving himself is buried), will further appreciate the verisimilitude of the film’s scene of Masbeth’s funeral, which takes place out on a hillside graveyard.
Sleepy Hollow also prospers from uniformly superlative performances, starting with Johnny Depp in the starring role. Depp is doubtless a more dashing and endearing figure than Irving’s Ichabod, yet retains the schoolteacher’s laughable skittishness. The actor manages to combine and convey multiple facets of the character–a squeamish detective, a childish coward (in the director’s commentary on the DVD, Burton repeatedly likens Ichabod to an adolescent girl), yet ultimately an adventurous and heroic leading man. Depp’s counterpart, the doe-eyed Christina Ricci, is positively spellbinding as Katrina, a beauty with wiccan proclivities. A performance by a young American actress affecting a pseudo-British accent could easily have come off as jarring and grating, but Ricci’s Katrina is both a convincing and sympathetic character. Miranda Richardson’s portrayal of the tigerish Lady Van Tassel is blackly comedic yet never devolves into campy quips and theatrics. As the slain Hessian turned Headless Horseman, the shock-haired, sharp-fanged Christopher Walken (who kills here in an unbilled cameo) effuses menace with nary a word of dialogue.
The Headless Horseman here makes for an unforgettable movie monster. His portentous arrivals are staged in appropriately dramatic fashion, presaged by rolling fog, strobing lightning, and fleeing, panic-stricken animals. Armed and mounted, the Horseman cuts a figure of macabre majesty. He’s a headless badass, a German Terminator impervious to wounding by ordinary weapons. Arguably the greatest legacy of Sleepy Hollow is its utter transformation of the Headless Horseman mythos. Not just some restless churchyard spook, he’s envisioned by Burton as a netherworld resident who emerges topside from a twisted, eldritch monument dubbed the Tree of the Dead. In countless books, films, and TV episodes thereafter, the character is more than a former soldier engaged in nightly search for his cannon-blasted noggin; necromantically controlled by his recovered skull, the Horseman’s sent to hunt others’ heads.
As it transforms Irving’s genteel ghost story into a latter-day Hammer horror film, Sleepy Hollow certainly earns a hard-R rating. It features a slew of graphic beheadings of humans (and a witch-abused bat), not to mention one nasty bisection of Brom by the doubly-armed Horseman. Still, the film balances savagery with sublimity–beautiful atmospheric shots, such as of the looming Van Tassel manse and the no-less-Gothic locale comprised by the Western Woods. This period film rooted in a specific time and place nonetheless conveys the timeless feeling of a fairy tale. For all these reasons, Sleepy Hollow stands heads above all other adaptations of “The Legend” before and since, and in my estimation represents the crowning achievement of director Tim Burton’s distinguished career.