After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of Mars Attacks! (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in 1999 with the triumphant Sleepy Hollow, a dark fairy tale powered by the pervasive millennial angst of the era.
Although the picture is set in the year 1799 rather than two centuries later, Sleepy Hollow nonetheless obsesses on roiling concerns regarding the future. Would it belong to science or to superstition, knowledge or mysticism? Would the future bring only a new dark age (Y2K) or the beginnings of paradise on Earth?
That's an excellent description, and a fine way of getting a good handle on the film's persuasive charm, for Sleepy Hollow is both egregiously violent (heads DO roll) and a throwback to a less graphic era in horror history. It is dynamic and colorful in presentation and yet also strangely wistful, innocent and elegiac about the world it creates: the last spell perhaps, before science truly erases magic from existence
As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1990s, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow opens with a droll visual joke that, in some fashion, very ably exemplifies the film's nature. Perhaps this joke is one that only the longtime horror movie enthusiast will fully understand. As the film commences, what appears to be very fake-looking red blood drips down upon a parchment. This fluid is soon revealed instead to be hot wax, used merely to seal an important letter. Yet for a fleeting -- and wonderful -- moment, the horror audience may believe it has actually returned to the wonderful and bygone world of Hammer Studios since the hot wax resembles that trademark Hammer-styled “fake” blood.
Less deliberately oddball than some of Burton's earlier works but nonetheless highly-stylized from a visual standpoint, Sleepy Hollow thus emerges as one of the top "tier" films in the director's canon; a bedtime story that maintains, even today, the kind of timeless, classic qualities of the best ghost stories.
The rational, scientific constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent by his superior (Christopher Lee) to the Dutch farming community of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of grisly murders allegedly caused by a spectral avenger called the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken).
When he arrives, Crane begins to uncover evidence of witchcraft in the Van Tassel family, even as he grows close to Baltus Van Tassel’s (Michael Gambon) daughter, Katrina (Christina Ricci). The specter of witchcraft strikes a chord with the cowardly Ichabod, however, as Crane's mother (Marie) was also witch.
"The millennium is almost upon us..."
Although based very loosely on the 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1783-1859), Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow serves instead as a dedicated tribute to the output of Hammer Studios, England’s pre-eminent exporter of horror during the late 1950s and 1960s.
In other words, Sleepy Hollow drips with atmosphere, depicts strange supernatural rituals, and generates extreme emotions in its dramatis personae and audience, namely terror. Writing in Entertainment Design, production designer John Calhoun reported that, from the outset of production on Sleepy Hollow, director Burton reported how he desired to “evoke the Hammer Film style,” one that was notably “artifice-heavy.” ("Headless in Sleepy Hollow," November 1999, page 38.)
Accordingly, the autumnal woods surrounding the town of Sleepy Hollow evoke Hammer’s visual tradition, dominated by fog, mist and craggy, ancient-seeming trees that could come to life at any moment. Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote persuasively of the film's canvas: "Using a color palette more often associated with stories of the gulag, "Sleepy Hollow" creates a landscape so daunting that even a large tree bleeds." Indeed, the artificial forest seems to reflect the very spirit of the film, of a world brought to life by the competing forces of science (the artifice of the production design) and magic (the special effects visualizations of the Hessian.)
That battle between the two ways (rational science and irrational mysticism) is the real thematic terrain of the film.
Almost immediately, Crane’s strategy is tested, and he encounters a world of very real superstition and witchcraft. Crane rejects these principles at first, in part because his Mother was a witch (a good witch…) and he lost her in a painful, violent manner to a society which condemns such practitioners. Looking at Crane’s dream sequences involving his mother, they pointedly contrast with the soot-and-industrial look of New York featured in the beginning of the film. The “cherry-blossom-filled reveries” (Interiors: "Here's Your Head, What's Your Hurry?" December 1999, page 62) suggest a world beyond reason and natural sciences; one more fully alive than what is depicted in the bleeding forest around the town. The forest there appears so autumnal and brown, I would submit, because magic and witchcraft are disappearing from the world: it is their final autumn before Ichabod's way will dominate the human race. Even the (ostensibly happy) end of the film reinforces this idea, with the arrival of Katrina and Ichabod in "modern" New York...a realm of science.
Interestingly, Sleepy Hollow does-- at least partially -- seem to view the loss of magic and the victory of science as a loss for mankind.
And like many a Tim Burton hero, The Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow is another outcast, but in this case, one who fits explicitly into the movie's dialogue about nature vs. super-nature. The Hessian is doomed to walk the Earth at the behest of an evil mistress, and Sleepy Hollow involves the freeing of this spirit and outcast. Thus the Hessian serves as almost a mirror for Crane. The Headless Horseman is a man who exists in a purely supernatural (rather than scientific) state and must be put to rest; to the clinical, empirical state of death, upon which his release hinges. His release rests in science, or release from the supernatural, in other words Together, Crane and the Hessian make an interesting duo. Two sides of the same coin, perhaps.
At one point in the film, it is noted that Crane is actually "bewitched by reason," and that comment perfectly captures the film's questioning spirit, the idea that science and belief must walk hand-in-hand in the human equation. And so even though Katrina fears that Crane possesses no heart (only a mind), the same cannot be said for this lush, gorgeous, Tim Burton film...undeniably one of his finest.