Tim Burton brings us the stunningly beautiful supernatural gothic tale of Sleepy Hollow. Burton’s take is loosely based on the short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving from 1820. Burton once again teams up with long-time collaborator Johnny Depp who takes on the role of iconic detective Ichabod Crane.
Crane is a man ahead of his time, espousing notions of clues or evidence, even going as far as creating his own rudimentary forensic equipment. He favors looking into the minutiae of a crime scene instead of making wild conjectures based on opinion and convenience to wrapping up the said crime. This is no more apparent than when Ichabod is appearing in court due to the discovery of a man in the river.
One man says something to the effect of “if he was found in the river then he must have drowned” to which Crane inquires to whether or not the man’s lungs had water in them. This little exchange shows us that the magistrate is a perfect example of not only an aging investigatory system but also this way of doing things has now become as outdated as the same men that enforced it for so long.
When Crane challenges the magistrate and judge—the judge is played by Christopher Lee, which was a nice wink to the hammer horror stories that inspired Burton—Crane is quickly shuffled off to the backwoods; sent to the small town of Sleepy Hollow to investigate the murder and decapitation of three locals. The way he is dispatched is, unfortunately, a sad indictment of law enforcement. Often times people fearing progress through self-perceived notions of obsoletion push against new methods of investigating instead of embracing them. Their actions causing more harm than good in the long run on many occasions.
After being sent on his merry way, the opening credits roll as Ichabod makes his journey to Sleepy Hollow—Burton never misses a chance to show his artistry. As the journey unfolds, the graphics change with how Ichabod interacts with the surrounding landscape. When close to a river the words are seen on the water’s surface. When in a forest the words disperse like leaves in the wind and so on as he continues on his way. These little details give us a sense that Sleepy Hollow is like some form of a gothic pop-up book on the grandest of scales.
Ichabod Crane soon arrives in the majestically constructed gothic world that is the murderous town of Sleepy Hollow. The town that seems to live in a world of grey, blacks and dark blues, only broken up by the exaggeratively crimson blood and Katrina Van Tassel’s (Christina Ricci) white outfits. Her appearance is the embodiment of hope against a hopeless backdrop, she is the last remnant of purity in a truly impure place.
Aside from the use of reds and whites, the color palette that Burton uses gives us a constant feeling of unease. The fog that blankets the town is like some form of physical manifestation of the dread that creeps through its streets, infecting all that comes in contact with it. The way the fog conceals and obscures what is really there could be said to be a metaphor for the truths and secrets that lay uncovered in this duplicitous rural night terror of a town.
The town of Sleepy Hollow is a dreary, dreadful place, oozing with deceit and deception, the aesthetics Burton uses might just be him at his very gothic best. Every block and brick in each building and homestead are plastered with Burton’s fingerprints. These beautiful gothic structures are pieced together with the same skill and meticulous guile as the narrative itself; just like a sturdy home, a good narrative has to be constructed on top of strong foundations.
It would be Johnny Depp at the peak of his powers that would be the aforementioned foundations. When he was in his prime there was no bedrock sturdier to place the weight of a movie on top of. His talents at the time were every bit as evident as his ever-so-kooky disposition. Depp and Burton both go a long way to subvert the hero trope, instead replacing the heroism with earnest curiosity followed by near cowardly levels of fear. Crane showing us repeatedly that he has no qualms in dispensing of any notions of valor. He constantly tries to find refuge behind Christina Ricci’s Katrina Van Tassel or his assistant Young Masbath (Marc Pickering)—or just Masbath as he is quick to point out to Ichabod upon their first meeting by his father’s graveside.
After some coercing by Masbath, Icabod enlists him in his investigation to unravel the plot that has cost three people their lives. The relationship between Crane and his young assistant does a lot to alleviate the constant fear of death and decapitation. Depp and Pickering have a very good if slightly dry back and forth; the chemistry the pair share helps make light of some otherwise very disturbing scenes. We see on many occasions that Crane puts his trust in his young stead and is never afraid to use him for his local knowledge—or as a human shield.
As his investigation expands we see Crane’s use of strange gadgets as he examines the headless remains of a 4th victim. The homemade equipment shocks and confuses the townspeople of Sleepy Hollow. This instance is another example of how Ichabod is a man that is at odds with his time. He is the epitome of a forward-thinking man that finds himself once again surrounded by backward-thinking people.
During his examination of the body, we see that Mr. Crane’s methods may be more in theory than in actual practicality. His prodding and poking at the wound are quickly followed by gagging and retching, but he carries on regardless, which is a great encapsulation of Ichabod Crane as a man. Even though the task at hand sickens him he powers through, which is something that he has to do over and over again as the story plays out.
Crane’s steadfastness goes a long way in helping him wade his way through all the witches, superstition and post-war-time folklore. He constantly tries to look for the reality in the fantasy, seeking the needle of truth amongst a deceitful haystack. The locals proclaim time and time again that it is the legendary Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow that is the perpetrator of the foul crimes. The Horseman’s tale is one of brutality, betrayal, and one that will never truly be over until he gets his revenge.
Even though Ichabod hears these tales and comes face to face with the Headless Horseman—if you could call it that—even then he seeks not just the puppet but the puppeteer. He has borne witness to the weapon, now he needs to lay his eyes on the wielder of the undead cavalryman. The horseman is an allegoric representation of an attack dog; is it the dog that is the true committer of the crime or is it the person that unleashed it. For if you teach a dog to do nothing more than attack then all it will do is attack, its behavior is not an aberration but the result of evil-doers doing evil deeds.
Christopher Walken’s horseman cuts a tragic, vicious man with near animalistic tendencies. A mercenary crafted by war for war and only finding his home within the wartime theater. His soul is every bit as tortured as the victims of his brutal acts. A hellish man straight from its fiery pits who is hell-bent on finding out who stole his head, rising him from the dead to be used as a twisted weapon of untold destruction, lopping off heads at the behest of the one that pilfered his grave. Just like many soldiers before him, he is spellbound; this time magic takes place of rhetoric and propaganda which is what real-life political illusionists use to hold sway over the forces under their command.
Throughout all the duplicity, dark magic and murderous intent Burton manages to successfully walk the tightrope between gothic horror fantasy and satirical comedy. He crafted a serious fantasy world that never has any fantasies about taking itself too seriously. Even after more than 20 years the special effects that Burton deploys still look every bit as real and textured as they did upon its initial release. It is rare when the effects of movie age as well as the movie itself and in this case Sleepy Hollow truly is a rarity. Although his iteration of the tale of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow is definitely not to all traditionalists taste, it is however by far the definitive incarnation and it may never be surpassed.