31 by 31 Challenge #24: SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)


Richly designed. Pervasive in atmosphere. Whimsical at turns and unrelenting at others, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow has become a Halloween staple since its debut, and with good reason. It’s a low-scare but high-gore horror film the likes of which could only be produced by the strange love affair between creator and star that’s gone a little tepid over the years but here is still quite potent.

New York City constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent to the small hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of mysterious deaths involving beheadings. The logical Crane searches for a human perpetrator, naturally, but is confounded when the locals insist that the culprit is none other than the ghost of the legendary Headless Horseman. A contemporary spin on the classic colonial tale, Burton’s take on the story involves witchcraft, superstition, myth, history, and science all in one delicious cocktail.

This Gothic take on the well-known story stays true to the bones of the original while adding wit, life, charm, and that particular Burtonesque touch that makes his films so signature and standout. Together with his longtime muse and partner-in-weird Johnny Depp the two craft a refreshing take on old lore. Ichabod Crane is less flashy than some of Depp’s other roles under Burton (or Disney, for that matter), but no less compelling. Depp plays off a deft balance between ironic squeamishness and overblown bravado in the character. His charisma brings lightness to the darkness of the narrative, themes, and tone of the film, which is spot-on October glee.

Dank woods and dead leaves flank the period-appropriate set that’s heightened by stylization but does not distract or displace the viewer. A never-ending mist hangs over everything and you can almost feel the cold seep from your screen as you watch. Color is brought out in eerie yet subtle magnitude–rich blood reds, stark chalk whites–contrasting the lingering gray and producing an almost mesmerizing effect. The costumes and props all evoke the tone and the era as well, making this one of the most beautifully visualized horror films you’ll ever find.

The liberties taken in the story are all justified ones for the most. A few times the story is in danger of becoming too convoluted, but there’s always enough time for plot points to breathe before the audience has to take the next sharp turn in the narrative. The backstories fashioned for both the Horseman and Ichabod are interesting and add depth. The spurts of violence and gore mingle well with the blustery, ghostly parts of the tale.

Professional, high-powered performances, supremely rendered sets, shots, and landscapes, and a near-perfect narrative balance between dark and comic make Sleepy Hollow a wicked, delightful, and enveloping film. There’s nothing like a New England October. Or a New England ghost story, and you can find both in spades with this film, filled with all sorts of newly imagined twists and turns. So have some fun, go for a ride. Just be careful not to lose your head.

Sleepy Hollow

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

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