Sleepy Hollow, Revisited

Everyone has a couple of generational “classics” that they missed while everyone else was obsessed. How many times have I shouted at a new acquaintance, “You’ve NEVER seen Bring It On/Jumanji/The Birdcage?!!!” There are some films that are not nearly good enough to stand the test of time, but they’ve got something special that our current cultural miasma of fast-tweetin’ cynicism could never nourish. And we clutch them close and defend them – not because they’re underrated, but because they’re nostalgic. Well, my Missed Connection of the ’90s was a little Tim Burton classic called Sleepy Hollow.

I was tardy to the party, and had to party alone, but sometimes that makes for the coolest, funnest, most exclusive party of all.

I loved this film. Loved it in a simple and forgiving kind of way. It’s kind of fascinating as a general movie specimen, because here you’ve got a totally mediocre script beautifully elevated by the full Burton treatment. It is gorgeously shot, well-acted, and most of all, it is expressive of a specific moment in pop culture history. Sleepy Hollow has 1999 written all over it. It veers wildly from darkness into light, terror into romance, steampunk into fantasy, and never takes itself seriously. I like it so much because it’s Tim Burton not trying to BE Tim Burton – he’s just showing us all he finds beautiful without screaming “QUIRKY SHIT RULES” from the rooftops.

Johnny Depp is absolutely wonderful here. Ichabod Crane, the city detective out of his element in the haunted country, is an unlikely sort of hero: he’s pale, bookish, easily frightened, and is prone to condescending in order to mask his insecurities. But there is also a nobility about him. His commitment to truth and justice consistently saves him from himself – he squeals at the sight of dead bodies, but then determinedly dissects him anyway, whimpering the whole time. He inspires affection; we really root for a weakling to win the day. The thing is, Johnny’s also devastatingly handsome here as well. Burton photographs him like a Vermeer painting, all obsidian and alabaster and wide girlish wounded eyes. My ladyparts love a gentle tasty man, and Johnny hits every one of Ichabod’s notes perfectly.

Christina Ricci is also really lovely to look at. I don’t think she’s a very good actress – her forehead does most of the work – but her beauty in this movie adds a fairy-like ethereality that successfully counterbalances jagged black forest and grisly crimson bloodspurts. Her Katrina van Tassel is most effective when she’s not speaking (with a shockingly bad Dutch accent. Which sounds like she’s having an allergic reaction). As a love interest for Ichabod in this dark and fantastical world, she fits with the whole Sleepy Hollow vision, inspiring protectiveness with her babyface and damsel-ish purity.

What I love most of all, though, is the look of this film. It’s just eye-poppingly beautiful. The palette is quite similar to Burton’s Sweeney Todd – grays and blues and inky blacks with the occasional red splatter thrown in. But while Sweeney looked graphic, Sleepy Hollow looks dreamy. Or nightmarish.

This blood doesn’t evoke bright paint, it evokes torn flesh and goopy, messy beheading. It’s Tim Burton’s take on organic horror before he got ahead of himself.

We often see our characters in silhouette, making the trees and fog and earth way more otherworldly and complex than any human trespasser. This is also what makes me like this way more than future Burton fare – you can see how he built this production, from the ground up, raising up this misty purgatory in loving detail before even turning to his main characters. And when he did, he made them very simple, almost helpless. QUIRKY but not OVERBEARINGLY **UNIQUE**. Our hero and heroine and antagonist and side characters are not the main attraction of weirdness here – the forest is. The leaves are. The horses and the fog and the weathered ancient wood. I get the feeling here, more than any other Burton movie, that this world is real – it was here before he dreamed it into life, and it will be here for centuries after this story concludes and the director packs up and goes home.

So I guess I kind of enjoyed seeing Sleepy Hollow years after my counterparts – because had I seen it as a precocious horny 10-year-old, I might’ve written a Johnny Depp fanfiction and called it a day. It would have melted into a hazy fond pre-teen memory. Now I feel I can better appreciate the nuance and vision here, despite the missteps in story structure and dialogue. The look, the pure look, is extraordinary.

I saw the real you, Tim Burton! Stop it with your self-aggrandizing poppycock. Please make me some fearless, delicate classics once again.

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