Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Headless Horseman Needs To Smoke Weed

Hallowe'en is coming, so my remaining posts for the month will fit the occasion. I start off with a film review, for Sleepy Hollow by Tim Burton. I might end up having my name put on the enemies list by the Casper Van Dien Fan Club though.

“Their heads weren’t found severed. Their heads were not found at all.” ~ Reverend Steenwyck 
“The heads are... gone?” ~ Ichabod Crane 
“Taken. Taken by the Headless Horseman. Taken back to Hell.” ~ James Hardenbrook

“The horseman was a Hessian mercenary sent to the shores by German princes to keep Americans under the yoke of England. But unlike his compatriots, who came for money, the horseman came for love of carnage.” ~ Baltus Van Tassel

 “I think you have no heart. And I had a mind once to give you mine.” ~ Katrina Van Tassel

“Villainy wears many masks, none of which so dangerous as virtue.” ~ Ichabod Crane

Back in 1820 Washington Irving wrote the short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a story ideal for Hallowe’en, following a schoolteacher who comes to a quiet village with many a ghost story. The tale has been adapted many times for stage, movies, and television, including a current series. In 1999, director Tim Burton took on the story in a screenplay loosely adapted from Irving’s original tale and given Burton’s eccentric signature style, in the film Sleepy Hollow.

The film opens in the New York City of 1799, where a police constable, Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent by his superiors to the hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to look into a number of brutal slayings where the victims have been beheaded. Crane reaches the hamlet, meeting the bewitching Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the resentful Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien), and Katrina’s stepmother Mary Van Tassel. He confers with the elders of the area, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), Magistrate Samuel Philipse (Richard Griffiths), Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones), Dr. Thomas Lancaster (Ian McDiarmid), and Notary James Hardenbrook (Michael Gough). They explain that the killer is an undead murderer from the Revolutionary period, a ghostly headless Hessian with a taste for slaughter.

Crane isn’t convinced. He’s a man of deduction and reason and what he sees are tales told around the fireplace meant to frighten little children, not facts and evidence. That said, he’s a bit on edge in the gloomy, dark hamlet, and encounters the Horseman himself, an experience that makes him a believer. While he investigates the case and uncovers secrets (with the able assistance of Masbeth (Marc Pickering), an orphaned boy whose father was killed by the Horseman, Crane is drawn closer to Katrina. And all the while, a cursed spectre rides the trails in the woods.

The film had been in the works for some years, first as an idea by makeup artist Kevin Yagher, who wrote the concept with Andrew Kevin Walker. The two would end up pitching the concept to studios, and ultimately Tim Burton ended up directing. Walker fashioned the screenplay, with some uncredited work done by Tom Stoppard, taking the original story by Irving and going in a different direction (with nods towards the source material spread throughout). The film definitely lends itself strongly to the supernatural, where the original tale left things open ended, with a cursed ghost, the idea of magic, and the feeling of foreboding running throughout the movie. And there are influences throughout of the Hammer era of horror films, from actors to atmosphere.

The film was shot in studios and locations in Britain, where sets were constructed and the entire village itself was built. Filming was done with many of Burton’s signature themes in mind- eccentric and dark humour, gloomy and shadowy places, off kilter characters. The production design reflected that- the village feels bleak and spooky at times, and we can easily imagine spectres to be flitting back and forth in the shadows. The Tree of the Dead, as it’s called, is another example, looking like a place of evil. There’s very little sunlight through much of the film- instead brooding skies, fog, and darkness dominate everything. In fact, much of the film has a monochromatic feel where colours are minimized.

I like the work that the crew put into the film. The sets all have the look of a post colonial era, and that applies as well to other details: costumes, props, and other equipment all come across as plausible of the late eighteenth century. Special effects are also called into play- the way the Horseman enters and exits the Tree of the Dead, for instance, would be the sort of thing that would require digital work, while filming of the Horseman himself was a blend- the head of the actor was hidden both by costume elements and digital erasing. The deaths of several characters, including one spectacularly cut in half, owe much to special effects and prosthetic work. Adding to the supernatural feel of the story and the gloomy dark feel is the score by Danny Elfman, Burton’s frequent collaborator; Elfman’s score uses choir and orchestra for a richly Gothic, dark and brooding score.

The casting of the film was, with one exception, brilliantly done. That exception would be Casper Van Dien as Brom. The character’s a lout, wanting Katrina for himself, and deeply resentful and jealous of the attraction he sees between Katrina and Ichabod. Fundamentally he’s a petulant brat not getting his way, and fortunately for the events of the film, he’s really not around for long- the actor might look good (at least at the time), but as an actor he doesn’t have much in the way of talent. A film like this having such a wealth of character actors even in cameo roles is a good thing, though, and offers plenty of compensation. It starts with a brief appearance by Martin Landau, who had worked with Burton before on Ed Wood, as the actor plays one of the Horseman’s early victims. 

That continues with Christopher Lee, the Hammer Studios horror veteran who’d played Dracula back in those days, as the actor appears as a superior to Crane early on, sending him on his way in the dismissive way that only Christopher Lee could. Steven Waddington, whose work I loved in The Last Of The Mohicans as the (mostly) unsympathetic Major Heyward, appears in this one as a more salt of the earth character, Killian, who with his family end up caught in the web of secrets surrounding the Horseman, and who engages the spectre in a desperate (and well choreographed) fight. And Marc Pickering does what might be unexpected for a child actor, playing young Masbeth- he manages to not be annoying (take that, Macauley Culkin!). Instead the character’s helpful and loyal, perhaps too loyal.

The town elders are also an interesting lot. Michael Gough of course had worked repeatedly with Burton, particularly as Alfred in his two Batman films (continuing after the Dark Lord Joel Schumacher came in and messed it all up), but also in Corpse Bride and Alice In Wonderland. Gough plays Hardenbrook as initially grim- we could see him as the mad killer or crazed uncle in different films- but also wary and nervous. Jeffrey Jones, who had worked with Burton in Beetlejuice some years earlier, plays the sanctimonious and hypocritical preacher Steenwyck as judgmental and condescending. Richard Griffiths, the character actor who would end up playing Harry Potter’s irritable uncle (come to think of it, there are a number of Harry Potter cast members in this whole tale) weaves between being grim and anxious in the way he plays Magistrate Philipse. Ian McDiarmid, who spent a good while before and after this playing the Emperor in some of the Star Wars films, comes across as somewhat the lower man on the ladder among these town elders as Dr. Lancaster, even if his work as a doctor has more value than the others. He gives the character just the right dash of dark humour as well.

The role of the Horseman is divided up into two actors, both of whom work well as the ghost. Christopher Walken plays the Horseman before he’s headless- though he doesn’t speak (he snarls would be more accurate), he’s a ferocious, bloodthirsty man, something Walken certainly emphasizes in how he expresses himself. He looks and acts dangerous. Most of the film, however, the role is taken by stuntman and actor Ray Park, whose other roles have included the villainous Toad in X-Men and Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Park makes the character’s mere presence an alarming and scary one, and he makes the character a formidable antagonist throughout.

The character actor Michael Gambon was cast as Baltus Van Tassel, and he has a long record of playing compelling characters, such as here. The man is pleasant and amiable enough in person, though easily exasperated and ultimately rather paranoid- we see that in his dismissive tone of Ichabod during the story, as well as in his final actions. Gambon would go on some years later to take on the role of Dumbledore starting with the third Harry Potter film. Another future Harry Potter veteran was in the cast. Miranda Richardson is one of those actresses who’s interesting in whatever she does, and she doesn’t disappoint here. Mary Van Tassel initially comes across as polite and cordial, but as the film goes along and we learn secrets, there’s much more about her. Mary is an enigmatic, eccentric character (ideal for a Burton film), and suitably unhinged, and Richardson plays to that.

 Christina Ricci was an ideal choice for the role of Katrina. Strong willed and independent, she’s a character certain of herself, bold and courageous. She seems wise beyond her years, and isn’t the damsel in distress that a different set of writers might well have placed her as. Fortunately the character is spared from a fate worse than death- being eventually married to a character played by Casper Van Dien. It helps that she and Depp have a good chemistry together through the film, and first meet in the most unusual of circumstances.

Johnny Depp has a gift for eccentric characters and disappearing into a role. Most often that works, but occasionally there are misfires (side note: avoid watching Mortdechai at all costs- trust me, you’ll be sparing yourself from wasting two hours of your life). This is one of my favourite roles for the actor. He doesn’t take the character quite as far as in the source story- Crane in Irving’s story is much more frightened of everything- but there is a high strung, anxious, eccentric, socially awkward streak to Depp’s portrayal. He’s not a man of action, though he manages to get through the climactic confrontation with the Horseman more by luck. In making the character a police constable, I like the touch of making Crane a man of deduction and reason, believing in evidence (Sherlock Holmes would understand that). And I like that he’s able to apply that to a supernatural case- he’s able to think his way to a solution. Depp also has a gift for comedy, and uses that here- his reaction to blood spattering all over his face is understated in just the right way.

Sleepy Hollow is an ideally spooky film for the Hallowe’en season, with Tim Burton’s influences all over it- the dark humour, the gloomy atmosphere, and the rich imagination. While it takes a good deal of liberties from the original story, it’s entertaining. The film has a good, oddball lead, and a frightening spectre who seems very good at chopping off heads. Even without a head, he's still two feet taller than Tom Cruise, who fortunately had nothing to do with this movie.


  1. I loved this film. In fact I must put that on my "to play for Halloween" list.
    I loved Depp in this one, as I did in Dark Shadows. It's a good Halloween/scary/funny at times movie. I thought the special effects were brilliant.

  2. A fun choice for Halloween...a bit of the wall, and tongue in cheek.
    Jane x

  3. I saw this movie so long ago, I don't remember loving it. But I don't remember hating it. Yet, I've never rewatched it.

  4. @Lynn: thanks!

    @Lorelei: this, his Jack Sparrow, and his leading role in Don Juan De Marco are my favourite roles for Depp.

    @Jane and Chris: it is!

    @Whisk: it has been awhile since 1999!

  5. I don't think I've ever seen this one. But we're planning our Halloween Film Fest, so maybe this is a good time....

  6. I never saw this one but I think I will watch it now because of your review.

    The only problem I had with it before and still do... is when movies use the the blue or gray tint from every movie from The Ring to Termintor Salvation or TV's CSI... It makes me tired to watch them when everything is grey or blue tint. I understand the need to make it atmospheric but in reality how could anyone live in a grey or blue shadow world. I think ometimes they over use it.

    cheers, parsnip

  7. I usually pass on scary movies and all movies with Depp--but that's just me.

  8. I like Tim Burton. I just don't like scary movies!

  9. You know, William, this is superb. You could have stopped at the title, which made me laugh. But you went on to write a detailed review with a plethora of interesting and related facts at your fingertips. You must have a hell of a brain.

  10. Great review. I've seen this one a few times. In fact, I just watched it two nights ago.


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