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SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

Tim Burton was not the original choice to direct Sleepy Hollow, though it almost seems like it could have been tailored towards him. The script by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) was loosely based on the Washington Irving classic short story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow". In the original story a schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane journeys to the town of Sleepy Hollow and falls in love with a young lady named Katrina.

However, when Ichabod hears the legend of the headless horseman, and then sees the horseman in person, he flees the town and is never heard from again. It turns out in the end that the horseman was merely Brom, Katrina's jealous fiancé. The film would take a very different, more obviously supernatural approach to the story.

Originally it was going to be a low budget movie directed by makeup wizard Kevin Yagher. However, once Burton was attracted to the project it obviously became a more prestigious movie with a bigger budget (Yagher would remain on board to do the makeup effects).

Burton would shoot in England for the first time since Batman, filming on sets in Leavesden and Shepperton. Ironically the producers chose England because there were no suitable towns in the region of New York where the story was actually set, but ended up having to build a fake town anyway.

The use of a mainly British cast and crew would allow Burton to pay homage to another of his favourite genres, Hammer Horror movies. In essence, the film would be a reinterpretation of an American legend filtered through a British horror movie sensibility.

Sleepy Hollow has the lengthiest pre-credit sequence of any of Burton's films. It opens with smoky credits and what appears to be blood dripping on a parchment. However, this is then revealed to be a wax seal dripping on a last will and testament.

Following this mysterious opening, the action cuts to Van Garret the Elder on a horse carriage ride at night. Needless to say both he and his son soon lose their heads, the blood from the beheading splattering on a pumpkin that looks a lot like Jack Skellington in his pumpkin king costume.

Digital effects help make the beheadings seamless, such as when it appears the elder Van Garret is beheaded in one shot. Martin Landau's wordless cameo in this prologue as the elder Van Garret was added late in the production.

The film then cuts to New York City circa 1799. We are introduced to Constable Ichabod Crane, whose unorthodox methods (such as the use of forensic evidence) make him an unwelcome presence amongst the barbaric law enforcement of the time. He argues that a new Millennium is upon them (not seeming to care that the millennium is still 200 years away). For his rebellion he is dispatched to the town of Sleepy Hollow to investigate the beheadings of three victims and counting.

The framing of the shots is interesting, especially when the statue behind the Burgomaster makes it appear as if he has bat wings in certain shots. Reportedly this was entirely unintentional, as hard as that may be to believe.

As Ichabod journeys to the town, the main body of the opening titles begins. The credits fade in and out over ominous shots of the forest, falling like leaves. Danny Elfman's score perfectly matches the credits, even using a dramatic burst of music to emphasise his own name!

Francis Ford Coppola did some early development work on the film, hence his executive producer credit here. This surprised Burton, who never actually met Coppola during the production.

Once Ichabod arrives in Sleepy Hollow, the conflict between the superstitious townsfolk and his practical views becomes apparent. Ichabod's cup is shaking after hearing the tale of the Hessian Horseman, yet he is still convinced the assassin is "a man of flesh and blood". The idea that the townspeople already believe in the monster and it's Ichabod who has to be convinced there's something supernatural going on is a nice twist on the usual plot of nobody believing the hero.

There's a nice effect before the death of victim number four, where the tendrils of smoke snuff out flames like fingers. Ichabod arrives at the crime scene on his new horse Gunpowder and tells the doctor off for moving the body, though he doesn't give him a reason why he shouldn't. Ichabod uses various Burtonesque gadgets to examine the body and crime scene, including an extremely long magnifying eyepiece.

Ichabod performs an autopsy on the female victim and the blood squirts into his face comically, though not very realistically since the blood is no longer pumping in the body. Ichabod emerges and says, "We are dealing with a madman", though he looks quite the madman himself with his face splashed with blood.

The next scene is actually the end of the original story. A headless horseman chases Ichabod through a covered bridge, but it actually turns out to be Brom in disguise. The flaming pumpkin flying towards camera before hitting Ichabod almost has a 3D-quality.

There's a great scene where Ichabod catches Magistrate Philipse leaving town and follows him. As Ichabod watches, horrified, the horseman (who really doesn't have a head) arrives and cuts off Philipse’s head, which goes spinning and then rolls along the ground to land between Ichabod's legs. The horseman swings his sword down and makes shish kabob of the head, riding off and ignoring Ichabod, who promptly faints.

The sight of Ichabod cowering in bed in the following scene is highly amusing. He tries to tell the gathered audience that it was a horseman, a headless one and Baltus calmly replies, "Yes we know. We told you. Everyone told you".

Ichabod and Young Masbath go into the western woods and find the Witch's home. Amusingly, Ichabod uses Masbath as a shield as they enter. The old crone tells Masbath to leave and chains herself down, while she waits for "the other" to come.

The buildup, with Ichabod slowly reaching to her head, which lies face down on the table, is quite creepy, but when the jump moment comes it's funny rather than scary, as the Witch's eyes bulge out on snakes.

Ichabod and Masbath, soon joined by Katrina, reach the Tree of the Dead, an impressive creation which drips blood like sap. The skeleton of the Horseman reanimates and leaps from the tree. His target this time is the Killian family.

This is probably the tensest scene in the film, especially as the family is very likeable even with their small amount of screen time. There's some wonderful moments in the Killian's home, such as the boy watching a lantern that spins and makes Halloween shapes on the wall, and demon faces briefly appearing in the fire. The faces actually used a digital model of the horseman's skull stretched and distorted.

The parents are both killed (in a disturbing touch, the mother's decapitated head rolls along the floor to face her son hiding beneath) and then the horseman comes back for the boy. Though the murder happens off screen, it is implied that the boy's head is the last one the horseman drops into his "shopping" bag.

Though it's refreshing that for once the kid doesn't escape, his killing by the horseman makes little plot sense. It's later revealed that the horseman only kills people who are either involved in the conspiracy he's been instructed to cover up or who get in his way, and the boy fits into neither category.

Brom and Ichabod join together in fighting the Horseman. He ignores them at first but they piss him off enough that he stabs Ichabod in the shoulder and cuts Brom in half. The three way fight is impressive, if a little short. It was choreographed by Nick Gillard, who also worked on the Star Wars prequels which may be why the fights shares some similarities with the lightsaber duel at the end of The Phantom Menace.

As Ichabod recovers he has a flashback to when he was young and he saw his father leaving a torture chamber (it is cleverly shot so that his father's head seems to disappear). Ichabod sees his mother's dead eyes staring out at him from the iron maiden. His hand goes down on a spiky chair (explaining the marks on his palms) and the iron maiden opens, unleashing his mother's body and an incredible torrent of blood in one of the film's most memorable images.

The plot does lose momentum from here on, as the mystery subplot becomes the main plot. Ichabod writes down random ideas on a paper, not realising that the finished order of words reads: "The secret conspiracy points to Baltus". He and Masbath go to the Notary Hardenbrook's office and find him hiding in a closet. They uncover what links all the murder victims, which I won't bother explaining here.

Before a meeting of the town elders, Baltus thinks he sees his wife being killed. They all go into the church before the Horseman arrives. He cannot enter the church, but much carnage still ensues, including three more deaths. Ichabod sees Katrina has drawn the evil mark on the floor and believes she was behind it all.

However, Katrina's stepmother is still alive (bet you didn't see that coming! Oh, you did?) and takes her stepdaughter to the windmill, where she calls the Horseman to kill her so she can finally claim her inheritance. Then she helpfully explains the whole plot.

There're two problems with Lady Van Tassel being revealed as the person controlling the horseman. First of all it takes some of the mystery away from the Horseman himself, making him a mere pawn in someone else's scheme.

Secondly, Lady Van Tassel's scheme makes no sense. Presumably she raised the horseman to kill her enemies because she couldn't do it herself. But then we learn she killed the servant Sarah and her own sister, so she obviously has no problems with getting her own hands bloody. She also fakes her own death at the horseman's hands, which has no clear explanation and would probably make it harder for her to claim her inheritance later on.

Despite these criticisms, the film does manage to end on a high note. Ichabod rescues Katrina and Masbath and the windmill explodes with the Horseman inside (why it explodes is unclear). Of course that doesn't finish him (because "he was dead to begin with") and there's a rousing carriage chase through the woods.

The horseman's head is returned to him (his regeneration is a somewhat cartoony effect) and Lady Van Tassel gets her comeuppance finally. He gives her a bloody kiss and then takes her back into the tree (and presumably Hell) with him. It's a perfect Brother Grimm dark fairytale ending (though the final scene in New York is so bright and upbeat it doesn't really fit).

Johnny Depp, in his third collaboration with Burton, turns in another inspired performance as Ichabod Crane. He manages to be camp and heroic in equal measure, and provides most of the film's laughs (though perhaps he faints a few too many times).

Although Ichabod was somewhat squeamish in the screenplay, Depp played up that aspect of the character a lot more on screen. He also based some of his performance on Angela Lansbury. Reportedly, Depp originally wanted to wear a prosthetic snipe nose, big ears and long fingers to portray the character as described in the story, but the studio vetoed it.

Burton approved of the rather feminine take on the character from Depp, commenting "We may have the first male action-adventure hero who acts like a 13-year-old girl". Despite the silliness, there is a more haunted quality to him, especially in the marks on his hands that are revealed to tie in with a very traumatic event in his childhood.

Christina Ricci is bewitching as the love interest, though she does struggle with the accent and an underwritten role. She also speaks too fast at times, making the exposition she has to utter somewhat difficult to follow. She certainly fits Washington’s physical description of the character, though ("a blooming lass of fresh eighteen, plump as a partridge, ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father's peaches").

The supporting cast is mainly made up of talented British character actors such as Miranda Richardon, Michael Gambon (who said in interviews he believes he was chosen because he had the funny look of a 18th century small town person) and Ian McDiarmid, who all add some class to the film. Michael Gough even came out of retirement for Burton.

Best of all is Christopher Lee as the Burgomaster, though some were disappointed by the briefness of his role. Marc Pickering is also very good as Young Masbath, once again showing Burton's affinity for getting good performances out of child actors.

The American supporting actors (and Burton regulars) include Jeffrey Jones and Christopher Walken (in a non-verbal, cameo as the horseman when he still had a head). Walken has a fear of horses, and in many of his scenes was riding a mechanical horse with the same body as one used in the Elizabeth Taylor film National Velvet (1944).

Lisa Marie and her incredible cleavage also appear again in a series of dreamlike and vaguely erotic flashbacks to Ichabod's youth.

The script (with an uncredited polish by Tom Stoppard) is full of witty dialogue and a few groaners that were probably put in as an homage to Hammer Horror, such as Ichabod telling Katrina, "You've bewitched me".

Burton is back to his familiar style here, almost as a gift to the fans that, judging by the box office, were put off by Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! For the most part he does a very good job, especially in the comedic and action scenes. His handling of the mystery subplot is more routine - it's clearly not the part of the film Burton was most interested in.

His direction also isn't very scary, which is a surprise as the creepier elements of Beetlejuice and the Batman films seemed to indicate Burton would be a natural at directing horror. Burton does take glee in the gore, though. He even splattered Depp with blood personally for many scenes.

The cinematography is beautiful, perhaps the best of any of Burton's films. The muted use of colors is a nice touch - it makes the town appear as if it has been drained of life. The color scheme also makes the splashes of red (the blood was actually orange on the set because of the blue filters used) stand out even more. The dream sequences in particular are gorgeous to watch.

Unusually for a modern film, many of Sleepy Hollow's exteriors were filmed inside, but the stage bound film rarely gives away its artificial locations. Sleepy Hollow looks and feels like a real upstate New York town in the 1700s. Of course there are plenty of Burtonesque touches, such as the crooked houses and batwing sails on the windmill.

Ichabod's wonderfully designed forensic equipments recall the similarly creepy props in Cronenberg films like Dead Ringers. The costumes are lavish and beautiful, especially for the ladies, who all get to display ample cleavage.

The makeup effects are grisly and effective, with each beheading given a different spin (no pun intended). The heads were closely modeled after the actors, giving them an authentic grisly feel.

The editing is pretty good, especially in the first half where the plot keeps moving swiftly. A great deal of plot and character development was cut out both at script stage and during postproduction. Katrina in particular had a lot more dialogue in the original script. Many of the scenes are cut up so much they make little sense, especially when compared with the screenplay.

For example, the courtroom scene near the beginning was originally much longer, with Ichabod trapping an inventor in his own interrogation device and getting a false confession from him. In the final version, this and many other scenes are cut down to the bare minimum.

The effects are subtly impressive, especially the removal of the horseman's head (Ray Park played him for the non-horseback riding scenes, wearing a blue hood). Not only did they have to paint out the stuntman's head and replace the background, but also a digital collar was created to complete the illusion.

Elfman's score is lush and haunting. The themes aren't as immediately apparent as his earlier scores for Burton, and for that reason the score works better with the film's images rather than listened to on its own. It marked a transition in Elfman's style as composer, moving away from the catchy themes that typified his earlier scores.

Burton puts in some more serious stuff, such as commentary on the justice system pre-20th Century and the persecution of Crane's mother by her religious zealot husband (these haunting dream sequences reveal how Ichabod lost his faith).

However unlike some of the director's earlier outsider-based films there doesn't seem to be any serious exploration of the characters. Burton said that he was interested in examining "a character that lives in his head vs. a character with no head", but this is never really developed. The film is mostly beautifully shallow entertainment.

Interestingly, the film does offer some hints of what a third Batman film would have been like if Burton had directed it. Sleepy Hollow also features a detective haunted by a tragic incident in his childhood who faces a sinister super villain terrorising a community. There's even a Robin like sidekick in the form of Young Masbath.

One of the coolest things about the cast is that three (count 'em, three) Sith Lords appear in it. Christopher Lee (later to play Darth Tyranus in the Star Wars prequels) has a superb cameo at the beginning, and Ian McDiarmid (Darth Sidious) has a small role as the town doctor. But you'd be hard pressed to recognise Ray Park (Darth Maul) without his head.

Aside from the Hammer influence, the film also references Black Sunday (1960), another favourite of Burton's. The frog croaking Ichabod's name is an homage to the Disney version of the story featured in the film, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), as is the flaming pumpkin.

Tim Burton's first true horror film is a superb gothic entertainment that just misses out on being a classic. Technically this is up there with Burton's best. The visuals are as creepy as you'd expect. The action and sword play are impressive, as well as the special effects. This certainly is the ultimate film for fans of beheadings.

The film is almost like a greatest hits compilation in parts, with the flashback structure taken from Scissorhands and the scare Ichabod gets from the witch of the western woods definitely seems like an homage to the infamous Large Marge scene in Pee-Wee. Indeed, it has something for everyone, whether you love blood and female cleavage or period costumes and romance.

However, despite Burton’s love of the genre, it doesn’t really work as a horror film compared to, say, Se7en. As Kim Newman wrote in Sight and Sound magazine, “What it isn't, and this may be a failing of Irving's conception, is very frightening. Heads are lopped off regularly (the inevitable poster line is "Heads will roll") and human corruption is everywhere. But Ichabod Crane is terrified for intellectual and psychological reasons we can't really share and Burton has his hero overcome all his fears so he can come up trumps in the extended finale”.

Additionally, the weaknesses in the plot, especially in the last act, prevent it from being more than a dazzling but flawed commercial effort from Burton. It's an enjoyable film, but the characters don't linger in the memory as much as those in his best works.

Sleepy Hollow marked something of a comeback for Burton, earning good reviews and over $100 million at the US box office. It was also nominated for three Oscars (winning for best art direction). While it could be argued that Burton played it safe with this film, giving his fans exactly what they wanted, it was the commercial decision he needed to make to restore some of his clout in Hollywood.

In 2000, Burton directed the series Stainboy, six shockwave cartoons released on the net and based on his 1997 book of poetry and art, "The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy". They were something of a return to his roots, and great fun. Burton's next film, on the other hand, would be more trouble than a barrel of monkeys.

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