Tim Burton has had a rough decade. He is under fire from both critics and fans alike for failing to hit a major cinematic home run since he gave birth to Big Fish which despite having Burton attached, still won over many as something of an “indie darling” motion picture. Being a fan of Burton myself, I can’t quibble with those who have leveled their legitimate complaints since all of his films in the 00’s, including Big Fish, have failed to resonate with me on the level his work used to. But to say that a handful of “meh” flicks have bludgeoned his legacy beyond recognition is more of a reflection of the poor memories of those decreeing it has. Right before the turn on the century, and the turn of Burton’s luck, he cranked out what might be his most definitive and certainly most riveting and gimmick-less film to date. Enter Sleepy Hollow. A “remake” if you will of the 1921 picture bearing the same title, it is an onscreen adaptation of one of the most classic horror stories ever put to paper. Burton’s penchant for Gothic romanticism and mature playfulness paired with his innate ability to both modernize and cherish his own unique brand of neo-classical Victorianism was, and still is, the perfect fit for such a grim and mystical tale. With a cast that is as breathtakingly talented as it is ridiculously appropriate and a presentation that still has yet to be surpassed in it’s faithfulness to the period and atmosphere, Sleepy Hollow stands as one of best movies to indulge in around All Hollows Eve as well as one of the best examples of Burton not only as a clever niche director, but a phenomenal directing talent period.
The mere mention of Johnny Depp is more often enough acting cred to get most people interested in seeing a movie, but group him in with such widely recognized, and severely underrated in some circles, talent such as Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gambon, Christopher Walken and Christopher Lee and you have a recipe for a movie with a lot of intrigue from the cast list alone. Hell, even Casper Van Dien is in this and proves his role in Starship Troopers wasn’t a complete fluke. To go into detail about how everyone on screen is magnificent would be almost unfair to their work and to me as one man trying to encapsulate such performances in a concise set of sentences. Depp is however, if there was any doubt, masterful as Ichabod Crane, and Ricci is the standout lady, just by a hair, as Katrina Van Tassel. Walken plays The Headless Horseman in scenes where they establish his back story as a Hessian and for those short moments when he is doing his thing, he is as intimidating and magical as he was in Pulp Fiction when he stole the show with one monologue. Speaking too much about what other talent plays whom, and to what degree of great their performances are would bring me be dangerously close to spoiler territory, and since this revamped and slightly reworked version of Sleepy Hollow brings a mammoth amount of depth and conspiracy to an otherwise fairly straight forward yarn, I dare not ruin any of the twists and turns that await if this is indeed your first trip to The Hollow.
Burton’s job directing Sleepy Hollow mus have been quite a pleasurable task by my estimation though. Surrounded by some of the most professional and well-known actors and actresses in the business, both circa 1999 and in present day, Burton and his cohorts probably had an easy time focusing on getting the mood, tone, and atmosphere just right for a film that, at its very soul, is a period piece taking place in the autumn of 1799. With longtime friend and brilliant musician and composer Danny Elfman at the helm of the soundscapes, Burton really managed to capture both the historical themes and architecture quite well, while still leaving room for putting his trademark style into every nook and cranny he could find without spoiling the richness and charm the period brings itself. On a more intellectual level, there is even an undertone running through the film which presents some interesting viewpoints and debates about science vs. the supernatural. For those who are uninterested or unimpressed with this kind of depth can take solace in knowing that it only pops up intermittently, but never the less impressively. Getting back to what is on screen and not simply implied or inferred, the sets, lighting, the brisk and fun pace, and the score (which I believe is one of Elfman’s absolute best) all work in harmony to really bring the fusion of history and vivid imagination alive without becoming overbearingly childish or shallow. Burton does use some of his classic tricks like angled shots and shadow/silhouette play, but he keeps his flashier side well restrained, and instead lets the locations, mood, and dynamite atmosphere do a bulk of the talking while he frames and observes it all without much visual interference. Oh, and there is quite a copious amount of gore in this one as well, mainly be-headings with a few “surprise” kills I wouldn’t dare ruin.
For those who have lost faith in Burton and possibly skipped out on his rendition of Sleepy Hollow due to his recent missteps or just never being overly thrilled with his late 80’s/early 90’s work (Batman, Beetlejuice, Nightmare before Christmas), you are seriously missing out on one of his most complete and well conceived pieces of work. Burton and crew aren’t just sitting on their hands and relying on their laurels, reputation, and charm to win people over. They have managed to fuse a strange sort of modernity and timely relevance to the yarn while still putting forth a picture that is phenomenally fun and can be enjoyed completely on the surface without missing out on major pieces of the puzzle. Consider this a autumnal gem that isn’t strictly to be used around my favorite holiday, but at any time in which you feel the need for spooky tale that is handled by a crew that was, and hopefully will be again soon, utterly on top of their game.