Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (1999)

8. Sleepy Hollow

Tim Burton spent a year developing “Superman Lives,” an ultimately doomed project that probably would have been terrible anyway. After the director fled that sinking ship, he quickly turned his attention to “Sleepy Hollow,” a big budget adaptation of Washington Irving’s iconic short story. “Sleepy Hollow” came at the tale end of a short-lived era when mainstream studios were making glossy, R-rated, costume drama horror films for grown-ups, must of them adapted from classic literary sources. Despite his entire career being heavily influenced by the horror genre, “Sleepy Hollow” was Tim Burton’s first true horror movie.

Set in 1799, the film follows Ichabod Crane, reimagined as a police detective living in New York City. Crane’s reliance on forensics, still seen as an untested science, has him sent packing to the small town of Sleepy Hollow. There, a series of ghastly murders have taken place, various town officials having their heads cleaved off. The superstitious town folks blame the killings on the legendary Headless Horseman. The skeptical Crane looks for a more scientific explanation, at least until he sees the Horseman with his own eyes. Pulled into the conspiracies of the small town, while romancing the lovely daughter of the town elder, Crane has to get to the bottom of this. Before the Horseman comes calling for his head.

The film wildly reimagines Irving’s short story. In the story, Icabod Crane is superstitious, enough that just hearing the local ghost story seriously spooks him. The character in the film is the exact opposite. Crane is a stern believer in logic and is skeptical in the face of local superstitions. He’s a proto-atheist too, turning his nose up at the Bible. The original story is basically about the love triangle between Crane, Katrina, and Brom Bone, finished off with an awesome ghost story. The movie, however, builds a complex mythology around the town and the Headless Horseman. About the only thing it keeps, aside from a jokey reference to the story’s conclusion, is the origin of the Horseman myth. In both, the Horseman is a Hessian soldier decapitated in the heat of battle. Because even a wildly revisionist adaptation knows to keep something that awesome.

The change in Crane’s character is an important one. While the genre of the supernatural detective had existed for years in books and comics, and had a few precedences on television, “Sleepy Hollow” is an early example of the subgenre on film. Crane is presented as ahead of his time, understanding that studying corpses and crime scenes are the best way to understand the crime. This coldly logical approach only gets him so far. Crane’s skepticism is heavily shaken when the Horseman appears in front of him. Now, Icabod takes on the role of the supernatural detective, applying his ability to see clearly through a complicated path to the magic scenario he finds himself in.

The obvious influence classic horror has had on Tim Burton needs no explaining. Yet it’s surprising that it took him until 1999 to make a real horror movie. Though originally conceived as a classy slasher film, the primary influence on “Sleepy Hollow” reaches back further. The movie is widely the director’s homage to Hammer Horror. The movie recalls the look of Hammer, by taking place primarily on intentionally artificial looking sets. The story structure recalls the British studio’s output by slowly revealing more monstrous activities as the film progresses, bringing to mind “Curse of Frankenstein” and other classic films. The period setting, with men in powdered wigs and fancy overcoats and women in bodice and dresses, is obviously influenced by Hammer. Amusingly, the film takes place in post-Colonial America, not the UK, turning the formula on its head.

The element of the film that most recalls Hammer, though, is the movie’s gore effects. Compared to the nasty, hyper-realism of then-modern slasher films, “Sleepy Hollow” takes a more stylized approach. The movie copies the bright red blood that highlighted so many of those movies. There’s a creativity and, dare I say, whimsy to the way the film paints with blood. The earliest kill scenes has blood splattering on a smiling, Jack o’Lantern-headed scarecrow. Heads get cleaved and tossed around with a comic book furiosity. One decapitation has the head spinning on the neck with a swipe of the blade. Even the movie’s nastiest death scene, involving impalement on a fence spire, has a comical feel to it, with the way the situation escalates. Very little of the movie’s violence could be describes as mean-spirited. Instead, Burton and his team successfully created a slasher flick that is light-hearted even with countless decapitated heads rolling around and stumps spurting blood.

After “Mars Attacks!” was light on Burton’s trademark visuals, the filmmaker’s style makes a strong comeback here. “Sleepy Hollow” is painted almost entirely in strong shades of grey and black. New York City is filled with black buildings, the street and rooms flooded in dark shadows. The town of Sleepy Hollow is surrounded by a forest of dead trees. Gray, lifeless bark informs the look of the whole town. The interiors are slate-gray, flat boards against sterile walls. As impressive as the town is, the forest sets are the true benchmark here. The dead, hanging trees create a mood of foreboding whenever the characters walk through it. The Tree of the Dead is a singular image, twisting and unforgettable. The primary colors of gray and black make the bright red splashes of blood stand out. Notably, after the threat has been neutralized at the end, a warm brightness enters the film, replacing the drab coloring. Without drawing too much attention to the director’s expressionistic roots, “Sleepy Hollow” successfully creates a world of its own. Burton employs some of his fantastic wide shots, especially when Crane first arrives in town. The final scene takes place as Christmas and slips Christina Ricci in a black and white stripped dress, as if the director was celebrating holding off on including either of those things sooner.

The movie’s gray color palette is interrupted during other scenes as well. Early on, we get hints of Icabod’s past, like strange scars on his hands. Through dream sequences, we meet his parents. His beautiful, mysterious mother enchanted young Icabod with her witchy ways. His tyrannical, religious fanatic father squashes their fun. These flashbacks are brightly lit, full of clear whites and colorful flora. They are also dialogue free, backed only by music. Burton’s sweeping camera, combined with the eerie music and the surreal events, successfully capture a dream-like tone, notably when Icabod’s mom, played by Lisa Marie, spins into the air. The dream sequences also build fantastically. It concludes with little Icabod stumbling into his father’s torture chamber. He finds his mother in an iron maiden, opening it, flooding the room with blood and meeting eye-to-eye with her punctured face. It’s a startling but strangely beautiful moment. It also references two of the films of Barbara Steele, whom Marie superficially resembles. The holes in her face are from “Black Sunday” while her eyes peering from within a torture chamber are from “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Both films were a clear influence on the overall look of “Sleepy Hollow.” 

 “Sleepy Hollow” is undeniably a horror film, with its demonic villain and gory effects. However, to say it is a totally straight genre film is misleading. “Sleepy Hollow” also contains strong elements of action. More then once, victims attempt to fight the Horseman off with hand-to-hand weapon. The ghostly assassin parries and deflects their blows. stuntman Ray Park going out of his way to remind you that he was also Darth Maul. The last act of the story is an extended chase scene. The Headless Horseman corners Icabod, Katrina, and Young Masbath in a windmill. The heroes climb the staircase, the Horseman riding a rope towards them. Before the mill goes up in flames, Frankenstein-style, the good guys climb down the mill’s giant fan blades, also bringing “Brides of Dracula” to mind. Instead of just burning, the mill violently explodes, a goofy moment largely overlooked because the film is already on its way to the next set piece. The carriage chase has character leaping from horses, dragged across the ground on ropes, and dodging branches and sword blows. The action is dynamic and exciting, easily the best of the director’s career, putting the stiff fight scenes from “Batman” to shame.

“Sleepy Hollow” is also a mystery. The plot’s machinations are convoluted and mostly unimportant. It involves a secret wedding, an illegitimate pregnancy, obscure family connections, and wills entitling people to riches. Ultimately, when the person behind the plot is revealed, the motivations prove far less complicated, a mixture of personal revenge and personal greed. What’s fun about these scenes has more to do with watching Crane sleuth it up. His interrogation of Michael Gough’s town notary features some wonderful acting from both actors. When Icabod has filled his rooms full of notes, connecting the dots, his teenage sidekick sits back, disinterested and confused. This gives us a good idea of what a Burton Batman film featuring Robin would have been like. The mystery might ultimately be set dressing but watching the gears turn and come into place is still a blast.

The film is only Burton’s third collaboration with Johnny Depp but the two were well into their long relationship together. Amusingly, the script maintains many of Crane’s other trademark elements, such as his squeamishness. Especially humorous moments have him leaping up on a chair from a spider or a look of shock when blood splatters on his face. While Crane is both incredibly brave at times, leaping from a moving carriage for example, he’s also a humorless wimp at times. Depp has a good time subverting action hero expectations, making Crane a lovably egg-headed protagonists. Christina Ricci plays the second lead, Katrina Van Tassel, Icabod’s love interest. Katrina, a part that probably would have been played by Winona Ryder a few years earlier, is secretly a witch and immediately smitten with Crane. The film does its best to make the relationship workable. A scene when the two are flirting in the burnt out remains of a cabin are fairly charming. However, Ricci doesn’t have much chemistry with Depp and her character comes off as petulant at times. The blonde dye job isn’t flattering, even if she looks great in the period dresses.

Luckily, Burton fills the supporting cast with fantastic actors. Confirming the Hammer connection, Michael Gough and Christopher Lee have brief cameos. The latter brings his deep voice and sense of authority to his role as a judge while the former is fantastically nervous as the depressed notary. Michael Gambon does a good job of playing someone who appears to be friendly but is secretly planning nefarious things. Jeffrey Jones’ inherent superiority suits his role as a corrupted holy man nicely while future Richard Griffiths sweats it up fantastically as the nervous Magistrate who knows too much.

Yet the best performances belong to the film’s two villains. Christopher Walken’s role as the headed Horseman is brief, essentially limited to an early flashback and the conclusion. He makes up for it by filling the time with Maximum Walken. He never blinks, instead yelling and hissing, glaring intensely at his foes and dispatching them with ease. It’s one of the last times Walken would be terrifying on-screen, before he started playing his creepiness for humor. Nearly overshadowing Walken is Miranda Richardson. Kept in the background for most of the film, Richardson cuts loose at the end. Gloriously hamming it up, she spits each line with venom and vigor.

Danny Elfman’s score might be one of his more forgettable numbers but “Sleepy Hollow” is mostly a blast. It’s a delightful genre exercise, packed full of different types of thrills. It’s not necessarily fair to say its Burton’s last good movie. However, it’s the last film from the time period when the director’s reputation was untouchable. As a swan song to Burton’s coolest period, it’s a fine number. (And I still have the totally bitchin’ action figures too.) [Grade: B+]

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