Trick or Treat 2020: Two Cents Film Club Investigates Tim Burton’s SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

The spooky season is here and we’re officially kicking off our annual Trick or Treat series with 1999’s delightfully macabre Sleepy Hollow!

Believe it or not, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp collaborating on a big-budget update of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was once seen as a risky gamble for any studio to take up.

Bear in mind: Burton was coming off a string of disappointments and outright flops, capped off by the high-profile cancellation of his Superman reboot after a year of expensive development.

And Johnny Depp had never had a movie hit $100 million domestic, instead headlining either blandly successful programmers or arthouse masterpieces that made absolutely no money.

But the Edward Scissorhands/Ed Wood boys struck fried gold with their third collaboration. Sleepy Hollow originated as a passion project for make-up maestro Kevin Yagher (he created both Chucky and The Cryptkeeper) looking to make his directorial debut with an amped up, gory horror riff on Irving’s venerable old spook story.

Yagher developed the project with Se7en scribe Andrew Kevin Walker, devising a story where this time, the Headless Horseman was an actual… you know… headless horseman, on a murder rampage through the sleepy hollow of Sleepy Hollow. Only upstart big city detective Ichabod Crane with his bizarre new techniques of ‘forensic’ ‘evidence’ stands a chance against besting a decapitation-crazed demon.

Sleepy Hollow eventually became such an expensive commodity that the studio didn’t trust Yagher to deliver. He remained on supervising the gore and creature make-up, while Burton took over as director. He in turn brought in Depp, and the two spun Walker and Yagher’s supernatural procedural into a giddy Gothic bloodbath.

Audiences came out in droves to see heads roll, but Sleepy Hollow remains underdiscussed in the Burton canon. It isn’t one of his early masterpieces that made him an icon for a generation of outsiders, nor is it one of his infuriating future disasters that made said generation question how devoted they should have ever been to the dude.

To kick off this Trick or Treat season, let’s amble through the fog and see just what there is to find in Sleepy Hollow.

Next Week’s Pick

Vincent Price! William Castle! Ghosts! Ghouls! Skeletons! Acid Baths!

What more could you want out of spooky season?

Join us as we pass a night in the original House on Haunted Hill! Available in black & white and color versions on Prime!

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at) anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests

Trey Lawson:

I’d forgotten what a banger Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is. While it departs pretty significantly from the source material (which in my youth was very much a strike against it), the film very smartly takes the concept and makes it more cinematic. In fact, it’s perhaps as close as Burton has ever come to making his own Hammer-style horror film — and not just because several actors hail from that era of filmmaking. Much as Hammer transformed Dracula and Frankenstein, so too does Burton adapt “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” into a rollicking horror-adventure along the lines of Night Creatures or Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter.

It has most of the Tim Burton hallmarks: an exaggerated gothic aesthetic, a Danny Elfman score, and plenty of actors from his stock company of players. Plus, because it’s 1999, Johnny Depp hadn’t quite degenerated into a a goofy accented, silly hat wearing caricature of himself! In fact, I kind of love the idea of a detective who thinks he’s in a Poirot story finding himself trapped in a world of gothic horror.

Sleepy Hollow was very much the end of an era for Tim Burton. He has made other good films since (I love me some Big Fish), but from the 2000s on they were few and far between — and no film since has shown the focus and consistency of style and purpose demonstrated here. Plus there are few things spookier than a wild-eyed Christopher Walken with razor-sharp teeth.

Verdict: TREAT (@T_Lawson)

Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):

You gotta love a movie that just can’t stop hitting solid triples.

There are few pairings of Director + Material more obviously ideal than “Tim Burton and a playful Hammer horror take on The Headless Horseman,” and if everyone making Sleepy Hollow had run on autopilot, you’d probably still have something fairly watchable. But everyone here feels like they’re in on the bit and down to play with it (even Christopher Lee for all 90 seconds he’s in this thing), and there’s not really much that genuinely doesn’t work. Every time something like Christina Ricci’s obvious Dark Secret threatens to be boringly predictable, it instead has a canny spin that deftly compliments the way this tale twists the original Washington Irving story.

Also, it’s just chockablock full of Cool Spooky Shit. You got witches and wicked aristocratic conspiracies and ghosts and bugs crawling out of corpses’ necks and a sword fight with a dude with no head and nighttime carriage chases and bleeding trees — my point is, you know what you’re getting. Sleepy Hollow delivers precisely what’s on the box with the just right blend of quirk and confidence and everyone involved at or near the top of their game. It never reaches the artistic or emotional heights of an Ed Wood or Big Fish, but that really doesn’t matter.

Because, if I wasn’t already clear, this movie has a SWORD FIGHT. Against a dude. WITH NO HEAD.

Verdict: TREAT (@BLCAgnew)

Austin Wilden:

Making Sleepy Hollow into a murder mystery is a strange but effective way of getting a feature length film narrative out of Irving Washington’s original short story. Especially since Washington’s writing invites skepticism on the part of the reader about whether there was a real Headless Horseman or if it was a simple prank by Brom Bones to take advantage of Ichabod Crane’s cowardice and superstition. A detail of the story Burton’s movie nods to briefly. Doing a coinflip on Crane’s character to make him the sole skeptic in a story about the explicit presence of the supernatural abandons that part of the original in favor of bright red blood splatters, witchcraft, and satanic bargain driven conspiracies. A monumental shift from the source like that leaves it as far from the source as any adaptation until the TV version that brought Crane and the Horseman into the present day to do battle.

With all that said on the matter of adaptation and the spirit of the source, Sleepy Hollow is the right blast of spooky fun to kick off October. It contains some of Burton’s absolute best visuals in a career defined by them, a few unfortunately aged late-90s CGI shots notwithstanding. An unselfconscious camp horror feature that also has the courtesy of throwing in Christopher Walken to complete the crazy picture.

Verdict: TREAT (@WC_Wit)

The Team

@Brendan Foley:

For several years, I would start every October with a viewing of Sleepy Hollow. It’s just about the perfect Halloween movie: A spooky/silly/gory cocktail of ghosts and witches and demons and all kinds of repressed sexuality.

OK that last one isn’t Halloween specific but still.

Sleepy Hollow finds Burton indulging in all of his favorite fetishes, but with an actually coherent and well-crafted screenplay underlining his flights of Goth fancy. There are themes and richer ideas to be found in Walker’s screenplay that ol’ Timmy Bushy-Hair doesn’t care to dig into, but in this one specific case he was in the right to keep things surface-level.

Sleepy Hollow is just so much damn fun, from the design and execution of the Horseman, to the desaturated color palette mixed with the explosive red of the painterly-applied blood, to the treasure trove of esteemed British character actors lining up to get shish-kebabed by Darth Maul.

Sleepy Hollow left that regular rotation a couple years back, just because I had begun to find it the tiniest bit tiresome after so any viewings. But watching it now, I remember what an utter delight it is, from the first decapitation to that final gruesome kiss.

Verdict: TREAT (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

One of Tim Burton’s most entertaining films, Sleepy Hollow is a sad reminder of what could have been: the R-rated horror film is, to great dismay, one of a kind. A stylish, action-filled delight that indulges his gothic sensibilities, keen storytelling, occasional flights of ghoulish whimsy which recall his earlier stop animated sequences (the witch’s popping eyes are such a Burton moment) along with stylized violence and a quirky Johnny Depp performance. Unfortunately he turned a corner here, and while I do like several of his later films, well, they’re just not the same.

I’m thrilled to see our other commenters make note of the film’s Hammer-esque qualities. It’s something I’ve never considered, in part because Sleepy Hollow is so quintessentially American.

It’s been several years since I’ve seen this, and one thing that stands out to me much more now is what a rich supporting cast of wonderful faces we have, filling out the town’s secretive circle of leaders and citizens (as well as cameos and brief opening set in New York City). The casting really is incredible, with Burton reteaming with many favorite collaborators. And let’s not underserve Ray Park (who that same year also appeared as Darth Maul, one of the few great parts of The Phantom Menace), who brings so much character to the movement and combat of the Hessian in his silent, headless form.

Verdict: TREAT (@Austin Vashaw)

Next week’s pick:

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