At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Sleepy Hollow “99”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Horror/ Stars: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Marc Pickering, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Claire Skinner, Lisa Marie, Peter Guinness, Christopher Lee, Martin Landau/ Runtime: 105 minutes

When it comes to the timeless spook story that is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving I can recall that my first experience with this material was when I found a physical copy of the story and read it during October one year in elementary school. A feat that, even at a very early age, established me as an effective teller of stories…..and someone who was responsible for a whole class having nightmares for a week…or so I was told (life is weird like that sometimes). Still incredibly fascinated and in love with the material nevertheless, I found myself endlessly rewatching Disney’s amazingly well-done animated version of the story, coupled with bone-chillingly perfect narration by Bing Crosby, when it was paired up with their equally as timeless take on The Wind in the Willows on VHS. Indeed even to this day, when I am in need of something spooky to watch I am usually able to find it in its entirety on Dailymotion and watch it before going off to sleep. Yet, it was also due to being a child of the 90’s that I had a vague familiarity with another version of this iconic tale; one that was released in 1999 and had the phenomenal talents of creative visionary Tim Burton at the helm and actor Johnny Depp in the lead role. However for whatever reason, most likely because it took me awhile to get ahold of a copy of the movie, it took me a fair amount of time to see this film from beginning to end, despite the fact that I have seen all the other movies Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have made together. Yet, perhaps because of their track record when working together, I was honestly hoping that this too would be good and honestly I was not disappointed! That is because not only is this a lovingly well-made and told version of a timeless story, but it is also proof that when a talented auteur and a phenomenal cast are all working at the top of their various acting abilities, the results are both movie magic at its finest and, especially in the case of this film, a trip through a nightmare that you won’t soon forget.

The plot is as follows: The movie takes us back in time to the city of New York in the late 1700’s where we are introduced to a young man by the name of Constable Ichabod Crane. Mr. Crane is a man we soon discern is meek, but brilliant and yet something of an outcast on the force. This is because while most of his colleagues are quick to just accept the simple explanation and use simple methods in their “investigations”, Ichabod would much rather devote as much time as needed to an investigation whilst also utilizing brand-new tools in the burgeoning field of “forensic science” in his attempts to solve crime. Soon though Ichabod will find his scientific mind and devices put to the test when he is assigned by his superiors to go and investigate a set of ghastly homicides in a nearby village known as Sleepy Hollow. It appears that someone has been killing people in the manner of decapitating the victim’s head in one perfect swipe straight from their body, and then taking the head with him. Yet despite his squeamish reservations about the assignment, Ichabod dutifully accepts his charge and travels straight away for the isolated community. Upon arrival, Ichabod finds a menagerie of the locals in town, including Lady Van Tassel, Baltus Van Tassel, Brom Van Brunt, and Reverend Steenwyck, all greeting him with varying levels of both unease and eagerness. That is until they sit him down and explain their thoughts on the string of killings that have been inflicted upon their community. Thoughts that deal with the community’s long-standing legend of a headless horseman who roams the countryside and who the town attributes the recent string of killings to. Yet while at first our scientifically-minded hero is, quite understandably, very skeptical about the involvement of such a specter, it isn’t until he is an unfortunate firsthand witness to another beheading that he is able to conclude that a otherworldly headless horseman is indeed the guilty party that is responsible for the tragedies occurring. Thus Ichabod, along with Van Tassel’s daughter Katrina, a young woman who may have a few skeletons in her own closet, sets out on a horrific quest to not only find out why the Headless Horseman’s reign of terror is occurring, but to utilize any means necessary in order to end it before any more lives are lost…..

Now I think it is safe to say that Tim Burton really truly is just about as talented as most if not more so in the world of movie making when it comes to the aspect of conjuring up a world heavy in atmosphere for his characters to play in. Suffice it to say then that Sleepy Hollow really truly is the perfect kind of material for his distinct directing style to work on to the point that this film in many respects is a wonderful showcase for the best that Burton can truly offer a film. Indeed he does an absolutely phenomenal job at bringing the seemingly sleepy yet still quite haunting and creepy little village of Sleepy Hollow to vivid life. Indeed the way that everything in this film is showcased from the forest out of a fairy tale to scenery that can make one feel more like they are in a darker version of Wonderland is really what helps make this film a truly engaging and quite magical viewing experience. Not only that, but Burton’s directorial abilities are actually on point and not over the place with this one. Indeed not only are the scenes where characters get…..ahem dispatched of appropriately gory and horrifically ruthless yet never once feeling over the top, the main characters are clearly established, the director knows what he wants to put in the film, and the effects work does not distract from the main narrative in the slightest. Not to mention, but Burton has always had a talent for giving his audience the opportunity to be active viewers of his movies. As such, we as audience members are left to figure things out at the same rate as that of the characters in the story without the aid of the director. Indeed Burton has brilliantly showcased this technique before in movies like Edward Scissorhands and both Batman “89” and Batman Returns from 1992. Now although Burton is quite the gifted auteur when it comes to his work with a film’s visuals, I also feel that a fair amount of the credit should also be awarded to both this movie’s cinematographer, Mr. Emmanuel Lubezki, as well as the production designer, Mr Rick Heinrichs because these are 2 aspects which also help an extraordinary amount in bringing this story so effectively to life.

Now the cast in this film is absolutely fantastic at doing their part to bring this vivid and frightening nightmare to life. This of course starts with Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane. Indeed say what you will about the man, his career, and his personal life as of late, but I still believe the man is a talented actor when given the right material. This is most certainly a prime example of that, though the fact that friend and frequent collaborator Tim Burton is at the helm most certainly doesn’t hurt. Indeed as Ichabod, Depp gives us a man who, for reasons best discovered in the film, has devoted his life to the pursuit of scientific fact and shut himself away from the idea of otherworldly possibilities. Yet in the pursuit of this supernatural menace he finds himself having to accept that if he wants to defeat this horror he will have to embrace a part of himself he had shuttered away a long time ago. Suffice it to say then that Depp manages to incorporate this key plot ingredient and mix it perfectly into a cocktail that is already 1/3rd bookish, 1/3rd meek, yet also 1/3rd courageous when the situation calls for it thus putting a whole new spin on an already quite iconic character. Proving to be Depp’s match in this however is Christina Ricci as Katrina Van Tassel. Indeed Ricci not only possesses a very ethereal beauty about her, but she also does a wonderful job at showing us a young woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and who is willing to help Ichabod investigate and deal with this crisis in her village even as so many of her fellow townsfolk find themselves paralyzed with terror and fear at even the very possibility of going up against the Headless Horseman. Finally, to support the wonderful work done by the 2 leads, Burton has managed to assemble quite the impressive supporting cast from Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gough, and Richard Griffiths as the town elders of sorts to all-too-brief appearances by screen legends Christopher Lee and Martin Landau to back them up and they all manage to do quite impressive work of their own no matter how big or small their role may be.

All in all I know this has most likely been said many times in the twenty-plus years that have come and gone since this film’s initial release but Tim Burton’s take on the iconic story of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow does take a few creative and artistic liberties with the narrative. Indeed way before I sat down to watch and then review this movie, I had known through background research that the film changes up Ichabod’s occupation from school teacher to police officer and, now having watched it, I have come to see that there are way more differences than just that one from the original source material yet this is not an issue. Indeed this is because due to the movie being quite entertaining and enjoyable plus really honoring the spirit and tone of the source material, I really don’t think this is as big of an issue as it could have been. Also it is definitely worth noting that, unlike a past incarnation of this timeless spook story brought to us by Disney and Bing Crosby, this version is most certainly not for children though I would think the R rating would have been the first hint of that. Yet if you are a viewer above the age of 16 or 17 who either likes a good horror flick, is an admirer of creative visionaries like Burton, or both this is one movie that makes for a quite hauntingly enjoyable ride that you will most likely never forget. Just grant this old reviewer one little request and try not to lose your head over this please….On a scale of 1-5 I give Sleepy Hollow a solid 3.5 out of 5.