Considering the love with which Tim Burton holds the horror genre, it’s surprising that it took until his eighth film to make an honest blood-and-guts horror film, and in doing so made the most gorgeous looking Hammer Horror film the studio never made. Sleepy Hollow is a very loose adaptation of Washington Irving’s novella The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This time school teacher Ichabod Crane is a constable from New York sent to the New England town to investigate a series of decapitations (though it’s more so he won’t bother the higher ups in NY), there he uncovers a series of supernatural murders and a conspiracy within the small town.
Burton’s film jettisons most of the novella’s simplicity, instead of it being a prank on a school teacher, it’s a supernatural conspiracy that runs deep through the heart of the town, and Crane as a man of science must accept that there is more in this world than just what we can explain. Depp is very good in his role as Crane, his feminine, overly sensitive constable provides humour for the film which has a thick, atmospheric air thanks to Emmanuel Lubeski’s cinematography. Burton manages to create a growing mystery that grows within the New England town, and populates the film with British thespians and character actors all of whom could potentially be in on the plot.
Not only does this sit as a perfect Burton critique of town’s habits of keeping things from their children and the dangers of this, it also manages to be a scary film. A sequence in which the headless horseman stalks a family in their home, dispatching the father and mother, while a frightened child hides under the floor boards, witnessing the entire attack through a candle lantern making shapes on the wall is one of Burton’s best sequences. The fact that the film was made on sound stages also gives the film an uneven feel, not just the throwback to those Hammer films – helped by cameos from Michael Gough and Christopher Lee – but also in the way the town seems at times vast and at times incredibly close, adding to the uneasy atmosphere that Crane isn’t at home in.
Even as a throwback to films that were heavy on atmosphere rather than out-and-out scares, Burton packs a few in, thanks in no small part to a few grisly decapitations, excessive amounts of wound poking, and what might be the scariest kiss of all time. Only Burton would cast Christopher Walken and not let him dance, or speak, only adding to the film’s weirdness. But the true horror of Sleepy Hollow doesn’t lay in its gore (though Casper van Dien being cut in half is pretty gnarly) but instead in its portrait of how those we should put our collective trust in are actually those who might cause our deaths. For that alone, heads will roll.