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Sleepy Hollow

Tim Burton's 1999 horror film loosely based on Washington Irving's film.

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Through the woods, to the bleeding tree.

  • May 31, 2012
***1/2 out of ****

Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is such a timeless classic of Gothic terror that just about everyone has tried to adapt it successfully. I have survived through various children's animations and "adult" adaptations that make claims larger than the accumulative talent behind them has the chops to fulfill; and all for one near-perfect re-telling of Irving's story. Tim Burton is the man behind the magic; a very loose adaptation of the material known simply as "Sleepy Hollow". He disregards the decision of most men - which would be to faithfully adapt the short story into a screenplay - and makes the vision his own. But that is precisely why the movie works. I think Burton sees what so many others did not; the dark fairy tale qualities, the unrelenting atmosphere, and the macabre artistry of Irving's tall tale. If you are familiar with the story, forget everything you know about it. Burton puts such a strange and utterly fascinating spin on "Sleepy Hollow" that all things Irving practically vanish. In place of the man's signature style and sensibilities, Burton offers up his own. And for many, his offerings are more than enough to satisfy the cinematic stomach's need for something completely different and frighteningly fresh.

Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a police officer based in New York, is sent to the small town of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a string of three murders linked by the gruesome decapitation of each victim (the heads were never found). The townsfolk - including the leader of the village (Michael Gambon) - warn Crane that the perpetrator is not a mortal being, but a headless horseman who was murdered years ago, back from the grave with a bloody vengeance. The legend tells of the horseman's head being chopped off - much like he did to the heads of his very own victims back in the day when he was a warrior - and his headless corpse being buried somewhere deep in the woods of Sleepy Hollow. For many, many years he seemed to rest in peace; but all was not well, and when somehow given the chance to return yet again, he took the world up on that offer. And now, Ichabod must try and stop (or at least stall) his brutal rampage. To help him, he takes up an assistant - a young boy named Young Masbath - as well as the village head's daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci), who becomes Ichabod's love interest.

If the film is not a triumph of storytelling, then it is surely a triumph of visual design and conception. In the original short story, there were implications towards the end that the horseman was not a ghost but rather one of the villagers in disguise. This is indeed how a lot of legends tend to go - with somebody merely trying to keep it alive -but Burton was convinced that the most effective way to tell his version of the story was to regard the horseman as a paranormal being. Played by a very vicious sharp-toothed Christopher Walken in flashback sequences, the horseman is otherwise a work of state-of-the-art visual effects. As are the many heads that he lops off from various bodies; the film is certainly worth its weight in prosthetic heads. This could have easily been one of Burton's "miss" flicks (since he's a hit-or-miss director), but he finds a way to involve the audience in the world that he and his team of skilled make-up/special effects artists have created. Surely, Burton has crafted better characters and upheld better plot structure in the past, but the film remains a flawless visual experience.

It also helps that "Sleepy Hollow" is insanely, off-the-charts creepy. From the record number of forest shots and imagery of the headless horseman riding once again; the whole thing is spectacularly envisioned from beginning to end. As the story progresses, more visual set pieces are added on; and it just keeps getting weirder and weirder. There's a tree that contains blood in its branches and acts as a gateway between hell and earth for the horseman, a broken down complex and fireplace located in the middle of nowhere, and then there's the town bridge; always engulfed by the fog that cleverly hides the horseman wherever he may ride. These elements help to create real tension within the plot, especially in scenes where the horseman comes to collect the night's heads, so it's not all for show. Burton actually does something with every tool he is given; from the elaborate production design to the impressive effects to the interesting costumes. It's the standard stuff you expect from the filmmaker, but with more of a pulse than usual. It's every so often that Burton really goes to town on the gross-and-grotesque factor; and "Sleepy Hollow" is certainly a gory contender for its year. It's not quite shock material, but it ain't no "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure". But even that had scary clowns.

I am perfectly aware that this movie is not perfect. But it is pleasing to the eyes and the mind. In every frame, Burton makes you think about and re-consider each and every one of his creations thus far, in this film alone. There are contraptions that intrigue and imagery that is phantasmagoric. It rightfully evokes what I consider a true re-imagining of a Gothic era. Not many movies of its kind get this far, but Burton is resourceful and knows what he's doing. In the end, it may not be Irving's "Sleepy Hollow", but it's still got that fairy tale aesthetic about it that draws me in. In this case, it's the thought that counts. Some will write it off as an exercise in style-over-substance, and some will be thoroughly immersed in the psychological and macabre aspects of its twisted world. Film is art and escapism alike. I see a lot of filmmakers and individual films that struggle to find balance between the two (hell, from time to time, even Burton does); but "Sleepy Hollow" knows that it is entertainment of the highest power. It has no false pretenses and achieves precisely what it sets out to do. Fear not my friends, for when you're in Burton's company, the heads always roll rather vigorously.

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More Sleepy Hollow (film) reviews
review by . January 05, 2010
Heads will roll, bodies will fall and the legend of the Headless Horseman will live once again...
Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was one of the first ever horror novels written and even after almost 200 years the story still holds  the mystery, intrigue and horror that it did  all those years ago. Now in 199 Tim Burton puts his own  twist on the original story that  has terrified  millions.            Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" is as scary as it is original and  sinister it  doesn't …
Quick Tip by . August 11, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
not my favorite Jonnny Depp movie, but still an entertaining movie.
Quick Tip by . July 20, 2010
this is one of my favourite movies it's very dark and johnny depp is very good and christina ricci is beautiful
Quick Tip by . June 03, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Great thriller without being too too scary...Depp develops the character of Ichabod Crane extremely well.
review by . November 17, 2008
A quirky retelling of the Sleepy Hollow legend, but what else can you expect from the combination of Johnny Depp, Tim Burton, Christina Ricci and Danny Elfman?     In another characteristically weird role, Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane, only this time he's not a gawky school teacher, but a handsome (natch) Constable with a coroner's mind and a penchant for fainting after narrow escapes. After annoying the heck out of the Burgomaster (Christopher Lee) in New York, he gets posted …
review by . September 03, 2005
posted in Movie Hype
As far as adaptations of old American novels go, Tim Burton's visually rich, tightly composed, resplendent version of Washington Irving's 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' ranks in the top echelon. The script for the screen is the work of Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker and while it takes some liberties from Irving's story, the resulting dialogue and action pacing are so wholly in keeping with Burton's vision that it feels like an original story.    Much of the magnificence …
review by . September 07, 2004
"Sleepy Hollow" is fun. Tim Burton outdid himself on this one. I've always enjoyed Burton's work, but I felt that he might have gone a little overboard with the second "Batman" flick. In the case of the Headless Horseman, though, the liberties taken make the story that much more captivating. As usual, Burton crams as much atmosphere as he can into this film. You actually feel like you've been transported to the creepiest part of 1799. Johnny Depp is perfectly cast as Ichabod Crane. He's a chicken, …
review by . January 30, 2001
posted in Movie Hype
If you grew up having Grimm's fairy tales read to you, and you loved them, this movie is for you. Tim Burton and the marvelous cast do an incredible job of creating a hauntingly beautiful movie. The sets and photography are superb. The movie is taunt, but has the somewhat dreamy quality that the best of the old fairy tales do. It is scary without being horrible or horrifying, and the violence is somewhat restrained. I expect to view this movie, with children, many times, and each time to be transported …
About the reviewer
Ryan J. Marshall ()
It's very likely that the only kind of reviews I'll ever post here are movie reviews. I'm very passionate about film; and at this point, it pretty much controls my life. Film gives us a purpose; … more
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In Tim Burton's stylish, creepy retelling of the classic Washington Irving story, SLEEPY HOLLOW, Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is a squeamish, bookish 18th century New York City investigator sent to a small town in lower Westchester county to look into three mysterious decapitations. When the always rational Crane arrives at the little Dutch village, he finds that most of the townsfolk believe the culprit to be the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a monstrous Hessian soldier (Christopher Walken), who seems to be mysteriously tied in to one of the town's most prominent families. Burton's natural instincts for campy humor, combined with the hauntingly gorgeous technical work (Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography and Danny Elfman's score included), collide to create a work of exhilarating entertainment and poetic storytelling. Miranda Richardson, Casper Van Dien and Christina Ricci help make up an ensemble cast that, combined with the historically accurate village sets and dreamlike magic of the haunted Western W...
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