Sleepy Hollow is still awesome…twenty years later

All year long we’re taking a look back at some of the best, most memorable, or at least culturally significant movies from 1999. That was twenty years ago and it feels like last Thursday. Already in the series we’ve considered M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit: The Sixth Sense. It’s a horror-thriller that stands the test of time and works as a great movie that would have been great in any year of release. M. Night could have made this movie yesterday and he would have had a smash on his hands. He could have released it in 1989 and it would have been just as tremendous.

We then looked at Fight Club, a movie very different from The Sixth Sense. It was very much a product of its time and time has not been good to it. It’s obnoxious, pretentious, gritty but undramatic, and the twist at the end was flat compared to Shyamalan’s first big shocker. In March we reminisced about the bygone fun of The Mummy, a film that has certainly held up, precisely because it leaned heavily on the past and its Indiana Jones inspirations. Already we have a tremendously eclectic few movies. One modern-day thriller/horror, one gritty 90’s-esque macho-fantasy, and one 1920’s-set throwback.

In April, everything was thrown aside as we reflected on the revolutionary and genre-defining sci-fi feature, The Matrix. In May, we talked about the awesomeness that was Star Wars Episode I….’s teaser trailer, before lamenting in June how the masterful IRON GIANT fell through the cracks. In July we reflected on the seminal low-budget horror hit, The Blair Witch Project before taking a break in August to consider how culturally-defining the year of 1999 was in all aspects of entertainment. Last month we looked back on just how timeless the dated setting of Office Space is, twenty years after release.

It’s Halloween month, which means scary movies from here to All Saints Day. 1999 had its fair share to reflect on and a couple have already been considered. The Sixth Sense put the now-infamous M. Night Shyamalan on the map while The Blair Witch Project ushered in a generation of copy-cat films. There are some other 1999 movies that didn’t make the list, simply because they’re “not awesome.” Movies like The Talented Mr. Ripley, The House on Haunted Hill, and End of Days all qualify as worthy of the scariest month of the year, even if the quality of those movies was lacking.

The movie to consider this month, however, is one that rightly deserves the title of “awesome.”

Sleepy Hollow represents the last great “Tim Burton” sort of Tim Burton movie. Before you point to Big Fish (which I loved) and Big Eyes (which I really liked), neither of those movies represent the kind of movie that Burton made a name for himself making in the ’80s and ’90s. There’s a certain style that defines those films like Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Beetlejuice, and Mars Attacks, that has yet to be replicated in more recent movies like Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, or Dumbo. In those movies, you can find some of the pieces but not the whole; the look is there, but not the feel.

Sleepy Hollow was the end of an era and it’s the last movie where Tim Burton put everything together to make a movie that only he could make. Other directors could do their take on the legend of the Headless Horsemen, but none but “Peak Burton” would make it quite like this. To explain that further, let’s consider the six things that make the movie so great…

TIM BURTON

The man at the center of it all needs no introduction, I would hope. As with all his best movies, there was something to the project that spoke to him. It wasn’t a “job” or an “assignment.” He wanted to make this. He had an idea in mind. In this case, Burton had been fascinated by The Legend of Sleepy Hollow story for years, going back to his time as an animator for Disney. The offer came to him after the failure to get Superman Lives off the ground. He received the offer to direct and instantly took to the idea, noting that he’d never done a proper “horror” movie before. Another long-time influence crept into the development, namely Burton’s love of the old Hammer Film Production films (such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy). Whenever Burton is inspired, there’s usually at least a spark of magic. Here, the magic covers the film from beginning to end.

JOHNNY DEPP

Burton’s long-time collaborator was, at this point, only on his third film together with the director. They’ve done five more since then but none have reached the heights of Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Sleepy Hollow (though Sweeney Todd comes close). Here Depp plays Ichabod Crane, who was a schoolmaster in the original tale; here he’s a scientist and investigator working to solve the mystery of the headless murders that have been plaguing the town. Depp is, like Burton, in peak form here, acting with vigor and expressiveness, displaying vulnerability and depth to the role that is lacking in much of his post-Jack Sparrow career.

THE SUPPORTING CAST

The movie features a whos-who of character actors from the era, including Michael Gogh, Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, Richard Griffiths, Martin Landau, and of course, Christopher Lee in a small but memorable role. You can feel the reverence Burton has for these old thespians and each is given a great moment or two to shine. The movie could have easily been filled-out by bit-actors or TV stars just to save money on casting, but by going for “hey it’s that guy” actors across the board, the movie takes on almost a “lesser star greatest hits” feel.

THE SET DESIGN

The film is set in 1799 (Crane mistakenly calls it “the dawn of a new millennium) and looks the part perfectly. Incredibly, the film was made entirely on soundstages and backlots (with various miniatures to boot), but the production design (thanks to Rick Heinrichs, who has been one of Burton’s go-to men behind the scenes) is so spectacular you’d never know it wasn’t filmed on location in some English or New England hamlet. Even in Burton movies that disappointed, you could never deny the look of the film was surreal and magical; that was often thanks to Heinrichs. On a film like this, where the source material is strong, the director is inspired, and the actors feel invigorated, Heinrich’s work rises even higher.

THE GORE

“Heads will roll” is the very fitting tagline to the movie, and indeed they do. This movie, though only PG-13, pulls no punches with its violence and gross-out scenes. Not only do we get a fair number of severed heads, but there’s also plenty of blood squirting moments, impalings, and a “tree of the dead” that looks and sounds like the worst kind of nightmare fuel for the squeamish and queasy. It’s not an R-rated gore-fest by any means; there’s a purpose to the grossness, but it is over the top in the best kind of way.

THE GUEST STAR

We can’t leave out the surprise of the feature, the man who went uncredited and didn’t appear with his face on camera until two-thirds of the way through the film: Christopher Walken. He turns to face the camera, with a mouth full of shark-teeth and mad, delirious eyes…in other words Christopher Walken but with shark-teeth.  It’s such a random casting choice and it’s the kind of inspired decision that only someone like Tim Burton would make at the height of his creative powers.

Sleepy Hollow remains one of my most favorite movies from one of my most favorite directors. There’s a level of horror, drama, thrills, and childlike (well, teenage) fun that just can’t be beaten. The movie is not as highly regarded as Burton’s very best films but it deserves to be placed alongside them, all the same.

The movie marks the end to a phase of his career that brought some of the zaniest and most unique films to Hollywood, and it’s a movie that ought to be enjoyed, not only this Halloween, but any other time you’re up for a movie that’s still fun, still crazy, still spooky, and still awesome twenty years later.

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