Published on July 28th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Sleepy Hollow 
Summary: Tim Burton benefits from a great script, outstanding art direction and a veteran cast to create his most frightening flick. A high watermark for the director and Johnny Depp.
R | 105 min.
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Andrew Kevin Walker (based on Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Christopher Walken
Distribution: Paramount Pictures | Box Office: $101,071,502 (#21 of 1999)
When you sit down to watch a Tim Burton film, there are a few nearly unavoidable things to expect. The costumes and scenery are going to look like they came from the greatest Halloween party of all time, Danny Elfman will provide a stark, eerie score to match and Johnny Depp will lead the way with a deadpan performance of a quirky character. Sleepy Hollow doesn’t only abide all of those rules, it perfects them.
This 1999 horror outing, based on Washington Irving’s immortal short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” is Burton’s flat-out scariest picture and possibly the most effective of his career.
Depp stars as Ichabod Crane, reinvented in this telling as a New York City police officer, who is sent to the upstate village of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of brutal beheadings. Crane is like the original CSI investigator, so dedicated to his belief in using science to solve crimes that he completely dismisses the townsfolk who claim a black-clad headless horseman is responsible for the murders. As Crane draws closer to the facts connecting each victim, he realizes the mythical horseman is only a pawn in a larger conspiracy.
If this sounds like the synopsis of a Tom Clancy novel set in the late-1700s, I’m not doing the story justice. Sleepy Hollow is, first and foremost a horror story, with elements of detective procedural and the occult mixed in.
The film’s screenplay, penned by Andrew Kevin Walker, is full of snappy lines that establish Crane’s character from the first time we see him and also endear us to him as a bit of a romantic later on, as he grows closer to the film’s love interest Katrina (Christina Ricci). “Perhaps there is a bit of witch in you, Katrina,” Crane says. “Why do you say that?,” she replies. “Because you have bewitched me.”
Read out of context, that could be the cheesiest call-and-response dialogue ever written — but against the beautifully dreary backdrop of this gothic picture, it bring just the right amount of sweetness into the frame. There are plenty of badass lines thrown in by Walker as well, though, the best coming when Crane is dismissing the town’s beliefs to one of its political leaders.
“We have murders in New York without benefit of ghouls and goblins,” Crane says with an upturned nose.
“You’re a long way from New York, constable.”
In the 1990s, Walker proved himself as a master of crafting pitch-dark stories by writing the scripts for 1995’s Seven and 1999’s 8mm. Both of those movies, along with Sleepy Hollow, sit on my shelf at home because to me they are great examples of neo-noir, films set in the darkest of worlds.
One of the thrills of Sleepy Hollow is the veteran cast of actors Burton has lined the film with. Christopher Walken as the horseman, Christopher Lee shows up as a judge and two-time Oscar nominee Miranda Richardson is a central character. The rest of the supporting cast includes British legends Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter films) and Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine from the Star Wars saga), as well as noted British character actors Richard Griffiths and Jeffrey Jones.
When I first saw this movie as a kid, Walken scared the hell out of me — but as I’ve watched the picture repeatedly more recently, his portrayal as the Headless Horseman makes me empathize more with the character, actually feeling sad for him in the end. This is far from the oddball schtick we’ve seen Walken living on since he became an SNL icon, here he doesn’t deliver a single line but manages to be one of the most memorable characters in the film.
Ricci, an often underrated leading lady, plays an effective love interest for Depp’s Crane. She’s gorgeous against the gothic backdrop, atypically playing a blonde often clad in virginal white. While Depp carries the load well, she provides the heart of the movie, even if Katrina’s motives aren’t always clear.
A large share of credit for Sleepy Hollow‘s success goes to Production Designer Rick Heinrichs, who later pulled off a similarly dark aesthetic in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Set Decorator Peter Young. The pair’s work on this picture earned them the Oscar for Best Art Direction — a feat that four Burton films have pulled off since 1989’s Batman. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the entire look of Sleepy Hollow is perfect and fully realized.
One climactic scene takes place inside a small church, where the entire town has gathered to stay away from the galloping Horseman. Examine this scene if you want to see what painstaking art design looks like; from the rose-red blood to the myriad religious motifs, some of which are used as violent tools, this is one of my favorite scenes of horror cinema.
Sleepy Hollow‘s look is so distinctive that you will probably miss most of the story your first time through the film, because you’re too busy gazing around the frame, especially at the costumes.
My knock on Sleepy Hollow is that it does look and feel very familiar if you’re a fan of Burton’s work, but as I mentioned above, this is where it all came together for the director. In short, it feels like Sleepy Hollow is the picture he was born to make.