Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Directed by Tim Burton

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When you think of a Tim Burton film you might be picturing Sleepy Hollow.  It’s maybe not his most noteworthy film, but the autumn landscape of this movie is decidedly, uniquely Tim Burton.  It’s gothic and dark but not as scary as such things would usually seem to be.  This has the atmosphere of an old fashioned horror film but a contradictory tone, full of farce and self-awareness, which together is a Tim Burton film, at least as I see it.

Set in 1799, we start with Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a Sherlock Holmes-like investigator who looks into the mysterious beheadings in a small village in upstate New York.  He’s not only an investigator but an inventor and firm realist.  Everything, he believes, can be picked apart and understood through science.  As you might expect this idea will be challenged by the events of the film.

At night everyone locks their doors in windows in Sleepy Hollow and makes a big show of doing so.  They look at Crane with suspicion, just as he will with each of them, mostly because the town is so tiny and the crimes so big that it seems almost equally likely any of them could have a hand in it.

When Crane begins to interrogate one of several stuffy, British characters who rule over the town, they quite candidly tell him that the beheadings are the work of the Headless Horseman, a demonic figure who emerges at night and can’t be stopped.  Crane writes this idea off, and we might too, but before you know it they are proved correct.  This isn’t a murder mystery to be played, like an Agatha Christie novel.  Sure there will be others in town tied to the killings, but when we’re told who is responsible almost immediately, it turns out to be true.

For that reason alone there is a delightful quality to this movie.  Ichabod Crane isn’t the smartest guy in the room, ever, though we at first think he will be.  He is steeped in the image of one of those types of characters, a detective who can piece everything together, who walks into any situation and almost immediately deduces what’s really going on.  In Sleepy Hollow it’s precisely the opposite.  The townsfolk know all about the Headless Horseman, and soon Crane will too.

To help drive home the idea that he’s not some classical, genius investigator, Crane is made to seem like the fourth Stooge.  He passes out in several critical moments, and when the going gets tough he routinely takes cover behind his young assistant, the son of one of the victims who is eager to join his investigation.  He is like Batman cowering behind Robin.

It’s this type of humor which might undercut the movie’s drama in another’s hands, but here works quite well.  It’s also the same dynamic you see in so many contemporary movies of this sort, with a supposedly dramatic, frightening circumstance and a main character who is able to see it in another light, to wink when someone else might wince.  I’m picturing mostly Tony Stark, Ant-Man and a character like Chris Pratt’s in Guardians of the Galaxy.  In these stories the side characters play it straight but the hero cracks a joke or too while saving the day.  He can’t just defeat the three-headed giant, but he has to observe how absurd it is while he does so.

Ichabod Crane is like that, but he’s not cracking jokes, instead expressing extreme fear at what he’s seeing.  In some sense he’s in a completely different movie than those around him.  They look at the conflict as almost mundane while it seems to us this might be actively scarring Crane for life.

It’s a delight, and yet for my taste a bit too much of the movie spends time trying to explain family trees and the goings on of Sleepy Hollow.  What matters here are the beheadings and the spectacle with which they’re carried out, not so much the people on the other side of that knife who we’re never made to care for or even understand on any meaningful level.

So to me Sleepy Hollow is an alluring, dark, amusing horror film that is yet sometimes a bit too boring for a movie this imaginative.

Up Next: Shakespeare in Love (1998), Captain Marvel (2019), For All Mankind (1989)

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