Sleepy Hollow captures Burton’s fin de siècle gasp; just this side of loopy and goofy to be fun without being ridiculous.
It would be tempting to reconsider Sleepy Hollow in the wake of what would occur after it: Depp’s monumental decay as an actor of importance; Jeffery Jones’ 2002 arrest; Burton’s own creative exhaustion (following Sleepy Hollow with the justifiably maligned Planet of the Apes (2001)) and the reduction of his aesthetic innovations to clichés. Equally important though is to consider Burton’s career immediately before Sleepy Hollow: passion projects Ed Wood (1994) and Mars Attacks! (1996), for all their loving attention to detail, had largely failed to repeat the early successes of Edward Scissorhands (1990) and the two Batman films (1989 and 1992). Burton needed a hit, something that would both connect with audiences and would also serve to hold, perhaps in check, those Burton-esque tropes that had led to this crisis in the first place. Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, first published in 1820, had long been considered by Burton to be “the first American horror story” and, with script assistance from an un-credited Tom Stoppard and a $30 million dollar budget, the scene was set for a vehicle that could do what popular cinema often does best; look backwards.
For Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was a comic short story, designed to serve the same community-building functions as his other tales, set as they are in then-recognizible places and exploring tropes of citizenship and nationhood. The clue to Irving’s intentions lies in his use of the word “Legend” to describe the supposedly-supernatural encounter with the Headless Horseman that closes Ichabod Crane’s failed sojourn in Sleepy Hollow. The literary Crane is described as having a small head, “flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew.” These phrenological clues indicate that he’s a ludicrous figure and, like the townsfolk in any number of John Ford films, associated with the old ways ‘back East,’ not the forceful kinds of masculinity this new land would require if it was to be tamed and settled.
Tellingly, Burton revises Crane’s physiology and romantic fortunes and where Irving’s original tale has the lanky, misshapen Crane rebuffed by Katrina Van Tassel who appears to have used his attentions to bolster the affection of her true desire, the film ignored Depp’s original request for prosthetics and keeps his delicate features intact, the better to successfully woo Christina Ricci’s Katrina and provide the surrogate family so beloved of mainstream western cinema at the film’s conclusion. Similarly, where Irving’s tale seems to celebrate the kind of authentic rural life of the residents of Sleepy Hollow over the faux-intellectualism of Crane, Burton’s film offers Depp’s Crane as a new model of modern masculinity, but with the same ultimate goal – Katrina’s hand as a mark of success.
Burton’s presence is most obviously seen in the film’s look and his then-refreshing interplay of horror and humor; severed heads that spin as they’re separated from bodies, Depp’s pained flinches and grimaces or fireplaces that billow ghostly flames. Equally important for this story is Burton’s homage to the aesthetic of classic British horror cinema, visible in the use of forced perspective to add a sense of foreboding to the architecture of the physical sets and especially in the windmill sequence – itself lifted directly from James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and repeated by Burton in Frankenweenie (2012).
Ultimately though, what the contemporary reviews of Sleepy Hollow nearly-unanimously note is the prioritizing of style over substance, Burton’s attention to building a convincing cinematic environment as opposed to the requirements of plot, story and character interiority. In this he shares the same kinds of fascinations as those other masters of style over substance, Michael Bay, Peter Jackson and James Cameron, for whom increasingly the ‘how’ of the filmmaking apparatus is more important than the ‘why’ (or even the ‘what’) of the story. But this, also, is part of the wider cycle of filmmaking, the relationship of the stories being told to the technologies used to tell them. Cinema has, from its earliest moments, toyed with celebrating the technology of itself with films that are spectacular, but whose narratives suffer as a result of the inclusion of those moments of visual awe, until the spectacular becomes commonplace at which point narrative reasserts itself once more. Necessarily this crude dialectic fails to account for the cultural and industrial complexities also at play, but with Burton’s career and many stumbles, it’s easy to see how the balance between the desire for the spectacle and the desire for story is so easily disrupted and here only just maintained.
So why then, with all of this, does Sleepy Hollow remain so damned enjoyable? Perhaps it’s because the camp performances – Ichabod’s shrill and brittle stabs at butch masculinity amongst them – remain somehow fresh because the film incorporates them but isn’t built around them. Compare Depp here with Depp in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2012) and then in Dark Shadows (2012); by the latter film the fresh-faced stumbles and insights become stale rote pieces to be wielded while the narrative pauses accordingly. Between these outings, Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka appear and codify the odd mixture of fey deliberation and low music hall burlesque Depp is now best known for. Occasional later performances will be rarely lifted out of this collection of tropes and clichés but here it’s all still new and the film lets these unfold without setting us up to expect them. Equally, the ensemble cast gel well, the mix of British and American character actors all honing their best damp paranoia while at the same time, largely deserving what befalls them. And then there’s this film’s secret weapon utilized, like the monster in Alien (1979), suitably sparingly: Christopher Walken as the Hessian-become-Headless Horseman. Even without the trademark lilt and pause he brings to all of his dialogue, Walken’s silent performance manages to capture the supernatural threat of the Horseman whilst also making visible the pain, betrayal and sadness that is revealed to be part of his past. Truly it’s Walken’s scenes that continue to hold the most fascination and, like the video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”, deserve to be viewed daily.
So while the film’s politics, particularly with regards gender, might have aged poorly, while the message regarding the presence or passing of mythology and magic in the face of technology is confused, and while the film necessarily marks the start of Burton and Depp’s respective declines into cliché, for this moment Sleepy Hollow largely captures Burton’s fin de siècle gasp; just this side of loopy and goofy to be fun without being ridiculous, just this side of camp to be enjoyable without being problematic or threatening, and just this side of spectacular to be pleasurable without being overly vacuous.