Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

          

A feather pen scratches across a piece of parchment and a name is signed. The paper is then put into a valise. Two figures hasten into the darkness in a horse-drawn carriage. The mist eerily floats across the path under the moonlight, illuminating the ghostly figure of a pumpkin-headed scarecrow in a neighboring field. A dark horse bolts past and a moment later the carriage is out of control, its driver headless. The single passenger flees into the field, terror-stricken. A dark shape looms out of the darkness. 

 

Hundreds of miles away, Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is an aspiring constable with the New York force. His methods are futuristic and unorthodox and in order to get rid of him, they dispatch him to the quiet but sinister little town of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of brutal murders reportedly committed by a madman. As he travels through the desolate landscape fringed in a low pervading cloud of mist, the viewer gains the spellbinding feeling of complete isolation. His arrival into town is not recognized by many of the parishioners, who close doors and windows to him as he makes his way to the manor on the hill owned by Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon). Announcing to one and all he is there to attend to the murder case, the gentlemen usher him quietly into the study and tell him a terrifying tale of the Headless Horseman, a Hessian renegade during the war known explicitly for his ruthless and brutal severing of heads in battle. Left alone in his journey, he fled into the wood with his enemies on his back and encountered a little girl and her sister, who gave him away by the purposeful snapping of a branch. The Horseman was beheaded and buried, but now rises again on some unknown pursuit of revenge.

 

The tale is haunting, but Ichabod is a man of little faith in the supernatural. He's convinced the murders have been committed by a man, not a ghost. His investigations are impaired by the unwillingness of locals to contribute information, the secrecy of the town's most primary members, and a distraction in the form of Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), Baltus' superstitious daughter.  During his stay in Sleepy Hollow, more and more townsmen are killed, their heads taken away into the night. But there is something far more devious afoot as Crane realizes someone is master over the Horseman, guiding his every move... One of the most hauntingly picturesque films I've ever chanced to observe, Sleepy Hollow is like a masterful painting. Tim Burton's unique vision shines through in stunning glimpses of fog-shrouded forest lanes, eerily sinister houses amidst scraggly fields, and also some truly terrifying and gruesome images. Even the woods hold a sense of foreboding, even before the headless horseman rides to avenge the past.

 

The costuming is absolutely gorgeous, but best of all the story has an excellent plot. Ichabod Crane is a fantastic character. His most humorous attribute is his squeamish qualities... being afraid of a spider underneath the bed, fainting after observing the horseman on one of his violent night rides, and looking decidedly pale while observing a corpse. Johnny Depp's performance is stunning; everything about him is nervous and without self-assurance; it's a role he plays well, and every chance taken in his interpretation turns out to be the right one. He literally steals the screen.  This graphic journey back in time and to a hauntingly horrible place is filled with the mysterious and often menacing, like a spellbinding dream in which the land is beautiful and yet sinister. It gives one a sense of foreboding but also of deeply-rooted fascination the director is well known for. A few of us will be familiar with the story from forced readings in Literature Class but the screenplay divides largely from the original intent, proving a bloody if not original piece of storytelling. On multiple levels it's highly enjoyable and also highly disturbing. Seeing people's heads being whacked off cleanly at the neck should leave one with a feeling of repulsion. 

 

But even more appalling is the level of witchcraft in the film. Katrina is our heroine but dabbles in "white magic," gives a book of spells to Ichabod for his safety, and even inscribes a "protective sphere" on the floor of the church. The anti-religious sentiments are profound. Ichabod's mother was a witch, and was murdered by his father (it's never determined if they were married or not) -- the local cleric, in a gruesome torture chamber. The person who commands the horseman also is involved in the dark arts. An old woman in a hut performs a crude sance in which she's possessed by the horseman; her eyes bulge out hideously, her tongue becomes forked, and her fingers turn into claws. This scene bothered me the most profoundly over any other. The local cleric is eventually discovered to be sexually involved with a witch. The ending scenes become particularly disturbing as the horseman finds his head and reattaches it in gruesome fashion (we evidence sinew and flesh growing on the skull).

 

One would expect a story of this nature to be gruesome and bloody. Gore runs rampant and the camera does not pull away from graphic head-slashing. There is also a profound amount of blood, even spattering from the depths of the tree from which the Horseman comes and goes from hell. Severed body parts, relentless and unforgiving slaughter, an extremely high body count, even a sexual romp between the town clergyman and the local witch, gain this a well-deserved R-rating. There is far more violence than simply axe-wielding; there are impaling, stabbings, bludgeoning, and even a far-off shot of someone being sliced in half. One would hope that the violence would be infrequent and brief; but it never seems to stop. Heads roll right up until the final credits... with a little help from a prevailing witch in town.

     

Overlooking the obvious visual problems and even the lunacy of the director's insistence that it should have been granted a PG13 rating, the film's most disconcerting element comes from witchcraft. Many people can overlook graphic violence but few Christians can justify the forces working behind the prevailing characters in Sleepy Hollow. Even though the script is cleverly laced with humor, the presence of "white magic" appearing more powerful than the sanctity of the church makes this a dangerous film for those uncertain of the truth. It points seekers in all the wrong directions.