Burton Meets Irving


Yep, it’s almost Halloween. Amazing, isn’t it? I don’t know about anyone else, but I always like visiting Sleepy Hollow around this time, and this year I thought I’d review the Tim Burton version of Washington Irving’s immortal 1820 story.

For those of you who haven’t taken in this film, be warned: This isn’t the cute Disney movie or even a cute Tim Burton movie. It’s rated R and likes it.

Sleepy Hollow had to be filled out quite a bit from the original tale, seeing as it’s seventy-five pages long with very little dialogue. The Headless Horseman is much more of a regular threat, as opposed to the mysterious figure one might see in the woods. He also seems more aware of his surroundings instead of mindlessly swiping his blade around.

In fact, that’s how the film opens. Three Sleepy Hollow townspeople die one after the other and the village wants answers. Enter Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), an idealistic investigator who employs some rather unorthodox methods to solve crimes. Well, unorthodox for that time. He’d be right at home on a CSI show. Ichabod is fully convinced that Sleepy Hollow’s murderer is a person, even after the locals warn him about the Headless Horseman.

Ichabod tries to find out if there are any connections between the victims. Who were their next of kin? Did they have a grudge against anyone? Were they hiding any secrets?

The more digging Ichabod does, the scarier things get and the bloodier the landscape gets. Some of his allies wind up in pieces. Fortunately, he’s assisted by Katrina van Tassel (Christina Ricci) and Young Masbeth (Marc Pickering), whose dad was killed by the Hessian. Who knows, it could happen that both Ichabod and the townspeople are right about the cause of the deaths.


I enjoyed Sleepy Hollow but also felt a wee bit mixed. There are so many good points but a very few bits don’t come off that well.

Like the practical effects. There’s no reason for the decapitated bodies to look too real, but we shouldn’t be able to see fibers from whatever material they used to make them, now should we? It’s not just a byproduct of 4K, either–I remember watching this on VHS years ago and thinking how much the bloodied parts of a dead widow’s body looked like burlap. Maybe I’m being too nitpicky.


Another thing is the overall composition of the movie. While Sleepy Hollow has a great look to it, there seems to be no real method to the color scheme. The exterior scenes are usually undersaturated, mostly in shades of gray and brown, giving everything an ethereal quality. It looks very distinctive and foreboding.

When Ichabod arrives at the Van Tassel abode, he goes from a gray, cold landscape outside to a warm, lively party scene inside, with people eating and dancing and playing Blind Man’s Bluff. It’s like Dorothy stepping into Munchkinland. The color stays as Ichabod goes into the library to interview Van Tassel and the other prominent members of the village.

At first I thought the color was a subliminal device used to signal when exposition was ahead or the characters were making emotional connections. That seemed fairly straightforward. But then we get to Ichabod’s guest room in the film and it’s still gray and cold. In another scene Ichabod stands out in a field with Magistrate Phillipse (Richard Griffiths) and the only object with any color is a scarecrow with a jack o’lantern head. It’s very stylized but a little confusing. It’s also a nod to the Hammer horror films (thanks for the tip, UpOntheShelf), although I think Hammer’s colors look a little more showy.

(On a side note, Ichabod’s room at the Van Tassels’ farm is pretty boring. In both the post-colonial and the Victorian eras the guest room was generally the best bedroom in a house. Anyway…)

I thought the casting in the film was genius. It’s cool to see so many durable British actors like Michael Gambon, Ian MacDiarmid, and Christopher Lee, even though their parts are small.

Naturally, the American contingent isn’t too shabby. Christopher Walken is awesome as the Hessian because he’s got a reputation for being a little off-kilter (not to mention full of surprises), and he’s both deadpan and menacing. His pointy teeth don’t hurt, either, unless he’s biting someone, of course. The fact that he never seems to blink just sends it over the top.


Christina Ricci’s Katrina is surprisingly unflirty for a character who ordinarily leads with her feminine charms; she’s almost motherly towards Ichabod. She’s not a damsel in distress, though, and turns steely if she’s crossed. Ricci does a great job here. It’s always fun seeing her because she’s a longtime horror-quirk pro who rarely fails to bring her A-game.

Johnny Depp is a Burton veteran who brings his own Ichabod Crane while recalling the original. His Ichabod may be not be a schoolteacher but he still has the classic nervous, awkward quality. Like a lot of Burton characters, his nervousness stems from a childhood trauma–he lost his mother, who was a witch, at a young age. Ichabod was so disturbed that he couldn’t stand to be shocked–I lost track of how many times he fainted in this movie. As a defense mechanism, Ichabod stubbornly sticks to science and pragmatism as opposed to the metaphysical.


The rivalry between Ichabod and Brom Bones (called Brom Van Brunt in the film and played by Caspar Van Dien) is non-existent, since Ichabod is there to solve the mystery and get out of Dodge, er, Sleepy Hollow. Brom does troll him once, riding at Ichabod dressed as the Hessian and guffawing when Ichabod faints. In a bit of grisly turnabout, though, Brom and Ichabod team up when the real Horseman corners them. It’s a refreshing departure from the Irving canon.

Another thing about this version is the emphasis on witchcraft, with the idea that certain witches are vindictive bawds who live to bend anyone to their will…and discard them like orange peel when they’ve outlived their usefulness. Well, that’s how the bad witches roll, anyway. There’s also the implication that these types make deals with the devil and sooner or later have to pay up. I could say more but I don’t want to ruin anything.


I think the reason I feel mixed about this film is because it’s set up like a horror flick but Burton can’t help being Burton–his trademark zaniness is subtly in evidence. This isn’t a bad thing because it adds comic relief without overt gags, but on the other hand it keeps the movie from being too scary.

Anyone who comes into Sleepy Hollow expecting straight horror may come out with a “meh.” For those of us who don’t like super-scary stuff, it may not be so bad, despite the blood and flying craniums.


Kristen’s Spooky Classic Movie Blogathon is on the way tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you then…

Sleepy Hollow is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.

4 thoughts on “Burton Meets Irving

  1. I adore Sleepy Holow, definitely one I put on during this time of year!
    As for the odd inconsistent coloring, it’s a deliberate choice: Tim Burton wanted it to resemble the old Hammer Horror films with its desaturated colors and bursts of blood red (casting Christopher Lee and Michael Gough were also nods to Hammer as well since they featured in some of their movies).

    Liked by 1 person

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