Revisiting, reconsidering: Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton, 1999)

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Revisiting Sleepy Hollow was something that I wouldn’t have done if not for my recent interest in Christopher Walken, even though I loved it back in 1999. (It was only the third movie I ever went to see at the cinemas twice, after Cool Runnings and Galaxy Quest.) The fact is, when watching Sleepy Hollow nowadays, it has three black marks against it before it even begins.

1. Tim Burton’s films of the past 13 or so years have retroactively poisoned all his earlier work. I now find it hard not to roll my eyes at the Burtonesque style. And he’s already repeating himself by Sleepy Hollow: I look at Christina’s final dress, the covered bridge, the iron maiden, and the floating pollen in the dream sequence and have to wonder how many ideas Burton had in his head to begin with. Or perhaps he has a Yayoi Kusama type of illness, only instead of seeing spots everywhere, he just sees crooked trees and black and white stripes.

2. I’m a little hesitant to say anything negative about Johnny Depp because people are more likely to think he‘s above criticism, but his own recent film choices have quashed any liking I have for him, too. Between The Tourist, The Lone Ranger, the endless Pirates movies, and his continued willingness to go along with anything Burton does, no matter how devoid of creativity, I don’t want to see the guy in anything anymore. I was a fan of his performance in Sleepy Hollow back in the day, and it does suit the film and is probably well considered, but it’s so similar to his other Burton roles that it’s hard to enjoy.

3. Many recent movies and TV shows, few of them good, seem to have drawn on Sleepy Hollow’s style. The only progression is that they’re more violent and have a blue filter slapped on them. By this point in time, Sleepy Hollow’s gothic trappings, inaccurate period costumes, choreographed fight sequences, and transposition of modern criminology into a historical setting come and go at the Cineplex and on the telly with some regularity.

Despite all that, however, Sleepy Hollow does have enough points in its favour that, yes, it is still worth a look. The biggest difference between this film and its recent clones, and Burton’s successive films, is that it has a strong script. The central mystery leads to plenty of scenes that dance around it in a way that’s so fun that the mystery itself doesn’t matter – and yet the over the top reveal at the end is enjoyable too. The romance between Katarina and Ichabod doesn’t work at all (I didn’t like it even as an uncritical teenager), but otherwise the film nicely balances big scares and smaller moments.

Sleepy Hollow’s cast is a real delight. Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, Jeffrey Jones, and Richard Griffiths all in the same movie? Are you kidding me? They’re all in on the joke and play their roles to the hilt.

Most importantly, Sleepy Hollow‘s sense of humour is baked-in, rather than the artificial attempts to please audiences that we get in more recent films of the same ilk. Burton was strongly influenced by Hammer Horror and silent films, and manages to both aim for scares and poke fun at himself. I don’t find the film funny myself, but nonetheless, it does feel authentically humorous.

And oh yeah, there’s Christopher Walken. I genuinely smiled when I remembered he was in this, because he’s the perfect actor for the role. If you’re Tim Burton and you want someone to play a character who only has a head for a couple minutes of screen time, who has no dialogue other than “Hyaaaaa!” and “Raaaarrrrr!” and who you need to be so scary in his first apearance that the audience dreads seeing him again… You want someone who doesn’t even need proshetics to look inhuman. You want Walken. That he’s worked with Burton before and actually looked quite a bit like Johnny Depp when he was younger is just gravy.

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