Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton)

Here's what I've covered so far:

Intro: My Year at "Film School"
The (sorta)Forgettable Films
The Films That Just Don't Hold Up
When Bad Movies Happen to Good Directors

The Forgotten Gems of 1999:
The War Zone (Tim Roth)
Sunshine (István Szabó)
Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein)
Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot)
Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)
Bowfinger (Frank Oz)
Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman)

I feel as though I have to come clean from the onset: I don’t much care for Tim Burton’s films. I know a lot of people love his work and praise his visual style, but honestly, his films do nothing for me. The guy is a visionary, I’ll give him that, but he can’t create characters worth a lick. I don’t think I have ever seen a Tim Burton movie where I really cared about what was going to happen to one of the characters, and I’ve always found the films where he completely abandons any semblance of story for more outrageous visuals to be his most tolerable. In 1999 he adapted Washington Irving’s popular short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and what he created was a work that was on par visually (read: it looked great and had bizarre set pieces) with his other films, but succeeded in making me laugh and have a good time while watching the story unfold – something that isn’t that common with Burton’s films.

Sleepy Hollow is a lot of fun, and it’s peculiar that I don’t hear it talked of very often when the director’s fans speak of his great movies. I always find it a chore to sit through Burton’s mopey excursions, but his take on Irving’s classic Gothic tale (which fits Burton like a glove…the establishing shots of the towns and the art direction are spot on, here) is an efficiently paced, sometimes scary, sometimes funny, always interesting to watch, horror movie.

Burton has a lot of fun with the Ichabod Crane character. He’s a scientific know-it-all who disregards the myth about The Headless Horseman from the minute he steps into Sleepy Hollow. He takes an analytical/scientific approach to the case, and what must be some of the earliest practices in forensics. Burton enjoys splattering blood onto Crane’s face whenever he can (making the viewer think of Sam Raimi), and as is normal with a Burton film, loves to don Depp with all kinds of bizarre “scientific” contraptions. It’s no wonder these two wanted to re-make Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, just look at the fun they’re having here.

The film is lit brilliantly, the sets beautifully constructed (the windmill at the end and the church, especially, make for great set pieces), the dream sequences stunning to look at (Burton has a thing for these ethereal dream sequences), and the music by Danny Elfman is haunting – so what else is new, right? Well, the delight is new. As I alluded to earlier I’ve always found it a chore to sit through Burton’s films. Only recently with Sweeney Todd did I find anything worthwhile after viewing one of his films, and after re-visiting Sleepy Hollow it’s even clearer now that the man should stick with stories of the macabre. The film is not really scary, that’s ruined by the first moment we see the martial arts fighting Headless Horseman, but it has a lot of fun with the spookiness that these kinds of myths evoke.

Irving’s story is more about Crane and the townsfolk, specifically the Van Tassel's, and especially Crane's relationship with Katrina Van Tassel (played by Christina Ricci who seems like she was born to be in a Burton film), and Burton for once does a decent job of establishing character and creating a likable, albeit exasperating, protagonist. And Depp plays that protagonist to perfection. He hits every offbeat note right. Many people point to his recent role as Jack Sparrow as proof the man can do comedy, but the real evidence is in Sleepy Hollow. Depp shows a lot of range in a one dimensional caricature, and he and Burton have a lot of fun with some of the more over-the-top moments (seriously: there’s a lot of blood in this movie…I’m talking Evil Dead 2 style.); there's even a moment at the end of the movie that reminded me of the Large Marge scene from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. You also get all kinds of Burton stalwarts playing bizarre roles: Michael Gough, Christopher Walken (who is appropriately cast as the pre-headless Headless Horseman), and Jeffery Jones. The screenplay was written Andrew Kevin Walker who wrote Seven, and even though this movie isn't nearly as serious about its horror tropes as that thriller was, he has a lot of fun playing up the lighter side of horror (Christopher Lee even has a cameo at the beginning, giving us the feeling of an old campy Hammer Horror picture).

What else can I say? This movie won’t set your world on fire, it has pretty much everything aesthetically that you expect from a Burton film – mix in some humor and creative set pieces and you have a movie that’s about a B- or B grade picture; but, despite what sounds like a lukewarm reaction to the movie I really did enjoy myself while re-watching it (I hadn’t seen it since it was out in the theater), and it’s a shame that it has been somewhat forgotten in Burton’s popular oeuvre. Among the forgotten gems of 1999 that I've covered Sleepy Hollow is probably the least impressive, but it’s a fun horror movie, and it is truly forgotten…I forgot how much I liked it until I watched a few days a go.

Extra Stills:


  1. I just want to say at the outset that your still arsenal here is spectacular--in fact the best I've ever laid eyes on here at Hugo Stiglitz. Of course this celebrated visual craftsman would give you ample compositions to put this off, and indeed you have done so, strikingly.

    As to Burton, well, I will say this: I am not impressed with all his films; NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS has always been overestimated, while I don't have hight regard for MARS ATTACKS, BEETLEJUICE, BIG FISH, nor his remake of PLANET OF THE APES. I am mixed on CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and the film you review here. However, I do think highly of three of his films: EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, THE CORPSE BRIDE and especially SWEENEY TODD (which you admitted you liked as well). Each of those films possessed emotional resonance, a quality that was lacking in all th eothers, while showcasing the director's visual and atmospheric gifts and use of color.

    What you say here:

    "The film is lit brilliantly, the sets beautifully constructed (the windmill at the end and the church, especially, make for great set pieces), the dream sequences stunning to look at (Burton has a thing for these ethereal dream sequences), and the music by Danny Elfman is haunting – so what else is new, right? Well, the delight is new."

    is brilliantly observed. You don't need my compliments. Your talent in descriptive writing is clear enough. True enough, the cinematography and music are the film's major selling points, that is aside from Mr. Johnny Depp, who you rightly praise.

    Perhaps that Christopher Lee casting was exactly for the reason you speculate: the give the film that old Hammer horror look, which by golly it did have come to think of it.

    Exceeding engaging essay.

  2. Sam:

    Wow. Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you liked the stills. I've been toying with doing that a lot more lately, getting more into the stills than my voice blah blah blahing. Hehe. I did the same things for my review of Open Range.

    It sounds like we both feel about the same when it comes to Burton. I forgot to mention Edward Scissorhands in my review...I too love that movie, and it's another one of those bizarre collaborations between Depp and Burton.

    As always your praises are too kind and I always enjoy it when you stop by here.

  3. Love "Sleepy Hollow," especially Ricci. I think Burton observes his characters like bugs, here in "Hollow" but especially in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." There is a certain distance between us and the action that does not make for a connection between audience and characters.

  4. Rick:

    Thanks as always for stopping by. You're right-on about the "distance" the audience has to Burton's characters. Huh, funny then that I praise Mann for doing the same thing. I guess the difference is that Mann's characters have a depth to them that allows for existential pondering where Burton's characters are undeveloped, uninteresting pawns for him to move around from one eye-popping scene after another.

    I guess I feel like the majority of Burton's characters are uninteresting to him (as in he's not interested in developing them, but set pieces instead), therefore they are uninteresting to the me.

    But you're right about the distance factor and maybe that works with his zanier characters like Crane and Willy Wonka.

    I'm glad you're a fan of this film, too. So far I haven't picked anything that's found any real disagreement (but there's always the top ten that's coming up, hehe).

    Again, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  5. I still think that ED WOOD is Burton's undisputed masterpiece and I have a theory that its commercial failure really damaged him in some way. He hasn't made anything that substantial or heartfelt since.

    That being said, SLEEPY HOLLOW is a lot of fun for man of the reasons you mentioned so eloquently above. It really does seem that Depp's foppish take on Crane was a warm-up for Jack Sparrow in the PIRATES movies. And he and Christina Ricci have great chemistry together.

    Aside from the obvious Hammer film homage I also think that Burton pays tribute to Mario Bava, like in the dream sequence where Crane sees his mother imprisoned in an Iron Maiden which is very reminiscent of a scene with Barbara Steele in BLACK SUNDAY.

    Enjoy this post and it's nice to see SLEEPY HOLLOW get some love. As you say, it doesn't get talked about much, even among Burton fans.

  6. J.D.:

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I love Ed Wood! I forgot to mention that too! Man, I was in a rush when I wrote this review I omitted a few of the titles of Burton's films I actually admire...all, not surprisingly, starring Johnny Depp.

    I love the Bava reference, and again, had I not been so rushed with this I may have re-watched some of the scenes again to get a better feel for the allusions...because there are a lot of them in this film. The one you point out is an absolutely brilliant scene and a wonderful nod to the Italian horror master Mario Bava. I'm glad you mention that here.

    I'm glad you like this movie, too. It doesn't get talked about much among Burton fans I wonder why that is? I love it though, and for a man whose films I don't enjoy all that much, it remains one of my favorite from him.

    Thanks as always for stopping by.

  7. Kevin,

    This movie is good fun. I dig it up every October for obvious reasons. But I'm with you. I really don't care for Tim Burton much past Beetlejuice and Ed Wood. And as I've written in the past, I'm kind of tired of him digging up old favorites and re-imagining them.

    I guess my criticism of this movie would be that it plays like a Scooby Doo episode - which isn't to say that it's not enjoyable, but that it plays more like a really good TV episode than a feature film.

    Anyway, Burton has tainted Willy Wonka for me, Planet of the Apes and soon to come... Alice In Wonderland. Shocker, everyone's amazed with Depp's makeup and really excited about him being the Mad Hatter. It's the same old, same old and Depp could do his career a favor if he did more serious fare and quit putting on the make-up.

  8. Piper:

    Thanks for stopping by. I like your comparison to a Scooby-Doo episode. It does feel like that. I'm also with you on Burton ruining the original films with his remakes. I wish Johnny Depp, who is always an interesting actor, wasn't so inclined to do these Burton films, but whatever, if he enjoys himself while doing them than more power to him.

    I did like his performance here quite a bit as it showed a 'zany' -- or 'wacky' or whatever you want to call it -- side that audiences hadn't seen at the time.

    Thanks again for stopping by.