Dir: Tim Burton, 1999, USA 105 mins
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Casper Van Dien, Christopher Lee, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Christopher Walken, Lisa Marie, Michael Gough
Jean Renoir once observed that a director spends his whole life making one film, and there is certainly something familiar about Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999). Although weak plots have tempered his impressive visual sensibilities, Burton’s box office record affords him opportunities to tackle personal projects with big budgets. His tales of unfortunates and outsiders are at once both introspective and universal, and while Edward Scissorhands (1990) personified Burton’s teenage inability to connect with girls, Sleepy Hollow deals with more adult neuroses, placing them within the conflicts of the past.
Loosely adapted by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven, Fight Club) from Washington Irving’s short story, Sleepy Hollow begins at the ‘turn of the millennium’ (despite the year being 1799), and protagonist Constable Ichabod Crane’s (Depp) progressive practices are at odds with the anachronistic justice system in which he operates. When faced with the mysterious decapitations in the village of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod continues to rely on rational thought and scientific methods of investigation, dismissing local folklore about a Hessian Horseman who hacked off the heads of his opponents in battle before meeting the same bloody demise, insisting that “We have murders in New York without the benefit of ghouls and goblins”. His preoccupation with visual perception and his rejection of blind belief is externalised through his uniquely Burtonian sight-enhancing gadgets, but after witnessing the Horseman claim another victim, Ichabod is forced to re-evaluate his beliefs. With renewed determination, Ichabod soon discovers the Horseman’s grave has become a portal to Hell, and his skull has been taken in order to orchestrate the sequence of murders. But to what advantage?
Although Ichabod’s purpose is to solve the murders, it is the resolution of his emotional (and physical) scars that is the emotional centre of the film. In flashbacks to his childhood, we see the death of his heathen mother (Marie) at the hands of a puritanical father (Guinness) that recalls Barbara Steele’s bloody demise in Mario Bava’s horror classic, Black Sunday (1963). Perhaps such scenes act as cinematic catharsis for Burton, whose estrangement from his parents led to his childhood immersion in the world of horror films that continue to influence his craft. From Beetlejuice to Batman, Burton’s protagonists suffer crises of identity that stem from the absence or inadequacies of parental guidance. Ichabod, Burton’s celluloid alter ego, must resolve his internal and Oedipal conflicts, and it is only through his mother-substitute, Katrina Van Tassel (Ricci), who has restored his faith in the fantasies of the magical and supernatural, that he can understand and solve the mystery of the nocturnal decapitations.
Ricci, with pallid complexion and haunting Bette Davis eyes, was always pre-destined to inhabit Burton’s universe, while the British supporting cast from Miranda Richardson to Michael Gambon add depth to the old-world milieu. Depp, so often Burton’s muse, plays the detective as an incompetent with trembling hands, quivering voice and an expression fixed on the precipice of nausea. Unfortunately, in Burton’s fine attention to Depp’s role, Sleepy Hollow underscores Burton’s inadequacies as a storyteller. Despite the suitably grotesque rolling of heads, there is never a sense of true danger and the final reveal of a marginal character requires a flashback explanation of Scooby-Doo proportions.
Nevertheless, Sleepy Hollow is a picturesque vision of gothic horror, where burning windmills and achingly contorted trees recall the dream factories of Universal Studios and British Hammer Horror (shrewdly casting Hammer regulars Christopher Lee and Michael Gough). The landscape almost becomes another character in the film, where the closeness of the community (where family trees intertwine) is expressed by the houses that lean together in mutual support. The galloping of hooves from horse-drawn carriages amid a perpetual autumn dusk, suitably scored by Burton stalwart Danny Elfman, creates the dreamlike setting where the opposites of rational and irrational, natural and supernatural, faith and disbelief are played out. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography revels in the richness of the seasons, from the autumnal hues of the village and woods to the whiteness of the winter snows and the appropriation of styles give Sleepy Hollow a look that is both timeless yet recognisable to a contemporary audience.
With his painterly approach to filmmaking, Burton’s films are akin to entering a dream world, where the complexities of life and death are played out. Although these are universal themes, the prominent authoring of his films suggests that it is Burton, not the audience, who is undergoing psychological exorcism.