‘Sleepy Hollow’ (1999) Review

“…you must believe me. It was a horseman, a dead one. Headless.”

Somehow, Sleepy Hollow has become one of my favorite Autumn movies. I remember when it came out with much fanfare (and discussion of Christina Ricci’s blonde locks) I was disappointed. I wanted something more serious, I think. Something really horrifying. I should have known better, because Tim Burton never does REALLY scary. Fear, to him, is something of a comfort food and when I was younger I wanted it to be bitter and sharp and dark.

So I watched it, dismissed it, and moved on. The thing is, over the last decade or so I find myself wanting to enjoy Autumn, and October in particular, as a celebration of a certain kind of dark wonder. The kind that makes me think of kids in costumes roaming the streets, of pumpkins and skeletons and candy, of witches on brooms and cemeteries the smell of fallen leaves in a mist-filled twilight. (And apparently makes me want to write in purple.) I love horror in all its forms, but Autumn itself has become a welcome, comforting, spooky moment between the end of summer and the long dark.

Sleepy Hollow is the epitome of that kind of not-quite-kid-friendly time of year, with gloomy forests carpeted in orange leaves, late-19th century fashions, gothic trappings and – most especially – with its headless monster riding down the unwary and lopping their heads of in a curiously bloodless fashion. While it has moments of real horror – the opening under the Tree of the Dead is disturbingly gruesome – it’s mostly filled with that kind of soothing, low-level horror that I dismissed so quickly when I was younger.

And as my local streets have been filled with fog and leaves and quiet lately, it seemed the appropriate time to indulge in a little comfort food…

The Medium
Sleepy Hollow is currently available for streaming on Netflix and can be rented or purchased on most of the online services. There is a Blu-ray from Paramount, but from what I understand it’s from a sub-par scan with significant picture quality issues. I enjoyed the streaming version, however, and that’s probably from the same source, so grain, salt etc.

The Movie
My first introduction to the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman was probably the Disney animated film, either on the Wonderful World of Disney or as some Halloween special. I distinctly remember the black horse and the flaming pumpkin flying towards the screen at the end. All the good parts happen in the last five minutes, if you ask me, but it’s a fun film with great character designs.

Johnny Depp doesn’t fit that lanky, odd-looking Ichabod of the animation, but he’s an enjoyable character nonetheless, with plenty of Depp’s trademark mannerisms and oddness. (Your enjoyment of the character may depend on your taste for the same, though this was early enough in Depp’s career that his quirks were less close to self-parody.) In Burton’s tale he’s a police constable sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a rash of decapitations, using all these newfangled scientific methods he’s so fond of. (It’s great to see Christopher Lee in a small role during these early proceedings.)

The late century fashions, the rural locations and the overwrought Gothic feel to everything makes the film feel like an updated Hammer film – all it’s missing is Peter Cushing (who would have been fantastic as Reverend Steenwyck, a role that went to Jeffrey Jones, unfortunately).

The town elders – businessmen Baltus van Tassel (Michael Gambon), notary James Hardenbrook (Michael Gough), magistrate Samuel Philipse (Richard Griffiths) and Revend Steenwyck – all inform the young policeman that the murders have been the work of a deceased Hessian mercenary who rides the woods and fields on his great black horse, looking for his missing severed head. Ichabod is, of course, skeptical, and sets about looking for evidence of what he assumes must be a corporeal killer.

The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (who would go on to lense The Revenant and Birdman) is glorious –elevating the moody, drab, slightly de-saturated palette into something rich and faded at the same time, like the rooms in an abandoned castle. It’s this look and feel, where everything is misty and only the color red stands out, that lends the film it’s Autumn patina.

Christina Ricci as Katrina, the daughter of Van Tassel (and stepdaughter of Lady Van Tassel (Mirand Richardson)) does as well as she can with her role, but it’s a thankless job to be the virginal love interest, and even a minor plot line about good witchcraft and its connection to Ichabod’s mother doesn’t give her much to work with. Poor Casper van Dien as Brom has even less to do, though, mostly given to glaring at Ichabod and getting bisected during one admittedly great fight scene. Christopher Walken’s Hessian, shown in flashbacks, is truly terrifying – a monster before he’s even dead.

Once Ichabod comes to terms with the fact that there is actually something supernatural going on, he turns his investigative skills to tracking down where the Horseman comes from, who he is attacking and – most importantly – WHY he’s attacking. He employs the aid of Young Masbath (Mark Pickering), the son of one of the victims to help him put the pieces together. There’s a conspiracy afoot, and if Ichabod can’t get to the root if it (sorry) then he and those he cares for may all lose their heads.

The film is actually quite a bit gorier than I remember, with plenty of decapitations, head piercings and the one moment with Brom being chopped in half. It’s a peculiarly bloodless gore, with some quickly uttered theory about a heated blade (“hellfire!”) cauterizing the wounds. The one time there is some spurting blood it’s for comedic effect, as Ichabod cuts into the roots of the tree where the Horeseman is buried.

Multiple endings with a little too much exposition slow things down a bit, but the Horseman made whole and his last ride to hell is worth the wait. (I love that little wriggle of his steed’s foot at the very end.) It’s a satisfying way to wrap things up, and a moment in New York with Ichabod, Katrina and Young Masbeth leaves me wanting to see more adventures with these three. Alas, it was not meant to be.

The Bottom Line
Comfort food indeed. For some, the Tim Burton production they most associate with Halloween is The Nightmare Before Christmas and while that’s one of my favorite films my wife and I think of it as a Christmas movie, and watch it while we put up the tree. Sleepy Hollow, on the other hand, scratches that particularly Autumn itch. While it does have some moments that drag and a final reveal that is more “meh” than moving, it manages to be most everything I want in a Halloween film. It’s atmospheric, moody and most importantly, comfortably spooky.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.