Horseman Hymns

While doing research for my new book, I was really surprised at the number of songs that the Headless Horseman has inspired (in an host of musical genres, but especially heavy metal). Here’s a Sleepy Hollow Playlist of some of the standouts:

🎃 Bing Crosby: “The Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 Joe Satriani: “The Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 Marcel Bontempi: “The Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 The Polecats: “Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 They Might Be Giants: “Headless”

 

🎃 Pigmy Love Circus: “Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 Attic: “The Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 Last Pharaoh: “The Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 Pegazus: “The Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 Deathless Legacy: “Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 William Allen Jones: “Here in the Hollow”

 

🎃 William Allen Jones: “Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 William Allen Jones: “The Galloping Hessian Rides”

 

New Book Release for the Halloween Season

I am thrilled to announce the publication of my new book, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition (available now as a Kindle eBook). This one has been years in the making, and I did massive amounts of reading and research for it, so it is a great feeling to see the project finally completed.

Amazon is still in the process of activating the “Look Inside” feature for my book, but in the meantime you can read the book’s description on the product page. You can also check out the Preface and an excerpt from the Bonus Essay (“Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture”) on the dedicated page here on my website.

Hope you all enjoy the new book. Happy Halloween Season!

Lore Report: “Follow the Leader” (Episode 152)

But the woods are more than just a place to visit. They’re home to challenges, risks, and even dangers. Wild animals, difficult terrain, and the dark side of all that peace and quiet–the lack of human assistance–can all conspire to turn a pleasant afternoon into an unexpected tragedy. And it’s been that way for as long as humans have been around. But if the tales are true, the forest might also be home to something else, something that we mere mortals are woefully unprepared to deal with: dangers from another realm.

In Episode 152 of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke leads listeners deep into the woods. The dark forest, lying beyond civilization, is a locus classicus of American Gothic narrative, but Mahnke adopts a much more global approach here. He delves into the folklore of the Wild Hunt, tracing the origins of such mythic tales in Germany and their subsequent spread to other countries such as Great Britain, where “the tales changed to incorporate local legends and key historical figures.” Mahnke takes the time to ponder the significance of the Wild Hunt, which was popularly held as an omen of impending demise for hapless witnesses. Some fascinating details related to the Wild Hunt are shared along the way, such as the British positing of King Arthur as the doomed leader of the procession, and the historical instances of accusing people–by those wont to cry witch–as willing participants in the unworldly endeavor.

A critique I seem to rehearse on almost a biweekly basis is that Lore podcast fails to connect its subject matter to the realm of literature. Happily, that is not the case here, as Mahnke (when discussing the ghostly figure of Herne the Hunter) invokes William Shakespeare, William Harrison Ainsworth, and Jacob Grimm. And imagine my complete and utter delight when the narrative devotes several minutes to linking the Wild Hunt to one of the most famous stories in all of American Literature: Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Mahnke remains on native soil in the episode’s concluding segment, which concerns a piece of lore involving an uncanny horse-drawn carriage in antebellum East Texas.

“Follow the Leader” need not assume a subordinate position to any precursor. In my estimation, it ranks as the preeminent episode that Mahnke has recorded in the five-year-plus history of the podcast.

 

Three Critiques

In my last post, I waxed ecstatic about Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. Admittedly, it is one of my all-time favorite films, and I consider it a modern classic of the horror genre. Still, I am capable of viewing this beloved movie without wearing Burton-tinted glasses. Not every note that the film struck was a perfect one. Here are three moments I wish had been done differently–or edited out completely:

1.The jump scare where the Witch of the Western Woods pops her eyes right out of her head was jarringly cartoonish, and would have worked just fine without this CGI-type special effect. Every time I see it, I think Beetlejuice has somehow smuggled his way into Sleepy Hollow.

 

2.In the climactic scene, Ichabod tosses the Horseman’s skull back to him, but the latter’s palming catch of it is totally unrealistic (it appears to pop right into his hand). There’s also a somewhat laughable gaff, because it’s clear that the teeth in the skull aren’t filed, yet get decidedly pointier once the Horseman grows his head back.

 

3.The snowy closing of the film–which has Ichabod return to fin de siècle New York City with Katrina and young Masbeth–felt tacked on to the plot, in a strained attempt at an optimistic ending. This unnecessarily Dickensian conclusion formed a complete contrast with the autumnal atmosphere prevalent throughout the film.

 

Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

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.

 

Ichabod Inane

I try not to post strictly negative reviews here on the Dispatches from the Macabre Republic blog, because there’s not a lot of joy in writing them. Sometimes, though, it is a necessity. Consider this my public service announcement.

Ichabod! The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an hour-long film (dated as 2019, but according to IMDB, first released in 2004) available on Amazon Prime Video. It bills itself as a musical, which I must admit caught my interest. But after a song at the outset, the film runs for another thirty minutes before offering another tune (I think I counted four total). We might have been better off not getting any songs at all, because the lyrics approach the height of ridiculousness (they lost me at “What an Ichabod-a-bing!”).

This film has all the production value of a high school musical. I swear I saw the “stone” well shake as characters ran by it. The limited set design also seems to lend a nonsensical quality to the proceedings: a masked ball is actually held outdoors in the village courtyard.

The putative plot centers on the Ichabod-Katrina-Brom love triangle, but grossly distorts the Washington Irving source text. Here Katrina’s parents are hellbent on marrying their daughter off to the dubiously debonair Crane, and Katrina is torn between her sense of familial duty and her true love for Brom. Nothing terribly compelling about any of this romantic drama. I also find it laughable that the actor portraying Ichabod (Peter O’Meara) is a bit portly, and bigger in stature than the actor playing the supposedly-physically-superior Brom (Nathan Anderson).

Perhaps worst of all, the Headless Horseman hardly figures into the film. Quick glimpses of the legendary specter early on don’t make a lot of narrative sense. And while there is a climactic confrontation with Ichabod, there is neither a thrilling chase on horseback nor an iconic pumpkin-chucking scene. Instead the film settles for moribund ambiguity and a lame, heavily-moralizing conclusion.

When first selecting the film on Amazon, I debated between renting and purchasing. Thankfully I chose the former, because one viewing is one too many. Decapitation would be a preferable option to having to sit through this bastardizing dreck ever again.

 

Sleepy Hollow Feasting

I was browsing online recently when I stumbled across this neat post by Bryton Taylor: Throw a Sleepy Hollow Party; The Menu from the BookFull recipes are provided for recreating the various items on the banquet table during the quilting frolic scene in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” These recipes might be slightly beyond my culinary capability, but those of you out there in the Macabre Republic who are more adept in the kitchen can now party like a Van Tassel. Just don’t invite any itinerant schoolteachers once the table is laden with classic fare, otherwise you might not get to taste a bite of the food you prepared!

Here’s Bryton herself discussing the holiday project:

Luminary Lanterns

Two days ago, William Bibbiani posted an interesting article over at Bloody Disgusting: “11 Unforgettable Jack O’Lanterns in Movies!”. This annotated compilation highlights some “classic carved pumpkins in your favorite movies and theatrical releases.” Most of the examples that immediately came to my mind were represented here, but the piece also got me to thinking about other eminent pumpkins that would be worthy additions to Bibbiani’s listing. So let’s make it a baker’s dozen: here’s a winning pair of jacks from two more Halloween-related features.

 

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Tim Burton establishes a gloomy October atmosphere right from the opening scene of this Irving-reworking film, with the shot of a looming scarecrow. The wickedly grinning face carved onto the cornfield sentinel (which ends up blood-spatted by Peter Van Garrett’s beheading) also presages the dark humor and lurid horror in store for audiences.

This scarecrow alone leads me to nominate the film, but Sleepy Hollow also includes another excellent jack-o’lantern: the flaming pumpkin hurled at Ichabod during Brom’s prank. The airborne gourd speeding toward the screen here forms the most realistic depiction of the iconic climax of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” that I have ever seen.

 

Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space (2009)

Technically, this is a bit of a fudge: it features the cast from the animated film Monsters vs. Aliens, but was actually a segment from the Dreamworks Spooky Stories Halloween special that was broadcast on NBC in 2009. Nevertheless, the titular alien critters (created by the contamination of a pumpkin patch by a flying saucer’s sewage) are wonderful to behold. With their jibber-jabbering and commitment to hijinks, they’re like a horde of autumnal Minions.

The true visual treat, though, is served up when the mutant pumpkins amalgamate into a lumbering Halloween colossus. Like a kaiju composed of radioactive jack-o’-lanterns, this creature makes for one awesome October bogey. I know I have never forgotten it after first catching glimpse of its incredible look a decade ago.

 

Horseman Invasion

(plot spoilers below)

Does The Strangers: Prey at Night invoke one of the most familiar nocturnal bogeys of all time?

I know I have “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” on the brain of late, but it seems to me that the ending of the 2018 home-invasion thriller alludes to the climax of the Washington Irving story. In the film, fiery final girl Kinsey is chased across a quasi-covered bridge by a flaming pickup truck. Kinsey stumbles before she can reach safety, but (in a reverse of the events of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) the axe-wielding Man in the Mask doesn’t get to deliver his capitally-punishing blow after climbing down from his steel steed (his burns/injuries cause him to topple headlong).

Admittedly, I could be reading too much into this scene, but perhaps not, considering that The Strangers: Prey at Night proves repeatedly allusive. The setting in a town named Gatlin Lake recalls Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. A scene where Dollface taunts Kinsey (who has locked herself inside a police cruiser) by waving the vehicle’s keys at her mimics Ghostface’s menacing in Scream. And the conclusion here, which has Kinsey narrowly escape her attacker (the Man in the Mask has gotten up for another go at her) by jumping into the bed of a passerby’s pickup, is an obvious nod to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

One other thought on the way things play out in The Strangers: Prey at Night: in my unsolicited opinion, the film missed the opportunity for a wicked climactic twist. The plot is set in motion as Kinsey’s family drives the troubled teenager (who clearly is not happy about being shipped off) to her new boarding school; wouldn’t it have been great if the Strangers turned out to be the avowed bad influences her parents were attempting to get Kinsey away from in the first place? Their murderous ambush could have been given Kinsey’s conspiratorial blessing, or conducted without her knowledge (until a devastating realization at film’s end). Alas, the screenwriters didn’t pursue either possibility, but they nevertheless scripted an entertaining follow-up to the harrowing 2008 original.