Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Directed by: Tim Burton
Runtime: 1hr 45mins
Netflix, Google Play, Amazon Instant

One of the things I enjoy about the holiday season is watching movies that have become classics simply for being the films we rewatch year after year (even if they aren't particularly good movies). Tim Burton is a director who has quite a few films that would make for a fun Halloween marathon. "Sleepy Hollow" is a film I used to watch every year around this time, but I haven't seen it in a few years now, until recently. It is, I think, one of Burton's best films.

It is, at its heart, a murder mystery with a supernatural flair, but Burton elevates it to another level with sheer style. It won an Oscar for its production design and was nominated for its costume design, and rightly so. Burton has always been known for his creative set design and uniquely morbid yet light-hearted approach to story telling. "Sleepy Hollow" is, like some of his other films, creepy but not scary, dramatic, but not without a sense of humor.

It stars Johnny Depp in the lead role as Ichabod Crane. Like the rest of the film, Depp invents his own version of the character. Had the film come out today we might have judged Depp more harshly for doing another version of his Depp schtick. However, his turn as Ichabod Crane was one of his formative performances that was unique in its time and understated by comparison to performances he would give later.

The film also features a cast full of recognizable performers. Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Casper Van Dien, Christopher Walken, Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid (that's right, Emperor Palpatine himself), Richard Griffiths, and Jeffrey Jones makes for a very full, very well rounded cast. The Oscar nominated costume design, that features white powdered wigs and era appropriate attire along with this recognizable set of unique faces gives the film the appearance of a live action version of one of Burton's animated films. They're almost caricatures. Depp's Ichabod Crane in particular uses a handful of ocular devices fashioned in a steampunk styling. The town itself looks quite a bit like a location from Halloween town from Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas." The trees look distressed with their disfigured curves and sharp branches. The houses seem to be barely holding together, as if a big enough gust of wind might make them crumble. Burton saps further life from the town by painting it and those that live there in a near grey scale pallor.

There is copious amounts of blood, as you'd expect in a tale of a headless horseman returning to life to chop off heads. Even if all the effects don't hold up particularly well today, they clearly aren't going for gritty reality. As Burton does, the effects aren't egregious and never feel like they're meant to disgust us. In fact, much of the blood is made to look a cartoonish, brighter red color (almost pink at times) as if to protect us from so-called gritty reality (something he did to similar effect in "Sweeney Todd"). Yet the tale is a fantasy, and Burton is excellent at visually rendering fantasy. Even his darker films, like this one, are done in a far lighter mood than your typical horror film.

Crane is called in from out of town to investigate a series of murders in which the victims head's were cut off, but there is no blood (as if the wound were cauterized immediately) and the heads are unaccounted for. He does his investigation with his unique devices that he designed himself. Yet much of the film's sense of humor revolves around the fact that he barely has the stomach to investigate these murders and his constant refusal to buy into the townsfolk's "superstitions." It's fascinating to watch Depp play this character discovering all these things while struggling to believe it, and furthermore make sense of it.

The plot twists of the murder mystery manage to intrigue while the well performed characters keep us invested. Nevertheless its Burton's dedication to establishing mood and atmosphere while bringing this classic tale to life that remains the most impressive thing about "Sleepy Hollow." It has, for me, become a Halloween classic. It is one of the better Burton/Depp collaborations, and represents some of the best of what they're capable of.