Sleepy Hollow

(Tim Burton, USA, 1999)


Channelling the Dead

Tim Burton has always been a director with a penchant for total control – someone who takes as much care with the smallest details of decor as with the broadest strokes of a high concept. In Sleepy Hollow he achieves a level of craft and mastery that rivals Orson Welles at his most baroque. Although this is a story of elements, nature and primal humanity – of bodily fluids, wind and snow, skin and sensation – it is also the ultimate studio film, painstakingly staged and constructed.

With the help of screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven, 1995), Burton plunders and recasts the legend of the Headless Horseman, as immortalised by Washington Irving and popularised in a Disney animation (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, 1949). Set at the dawn of the nineteenth century, the film outlines the mystery of a murder spree which leaves its victims headless. Into a secretive, close-knit community comes a city-slicker rationalist who refuses superstition: Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp).

All further twists and turns of the story are best left to be discovered by audiences. Suffice to say, Ichabod must negotiate the lures and threats posed by a creepy assortment of local characters, including the lovely Katrina (Christina Ricci), stern Baltus (Michael Gambon), and the accommodating Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson).

As in all great tales of the uncanny, Ichabod's rationalism must confront the unsettling, deadly signs of another world order – a realm of eternal life and restless spirits seeking revenge, retribution and 'closure'. But there is, of course, a tense and sustained note of 'hesitation': which of these signs are faked by human hands, and which are truly supernatural visitations?

Burton is often lumped in with a 1980s generation of 'movie brats' – filmmakers more interested in and conversant with the world of cinema than the real world. Illusion, artifice and 'simulation' have for years been his central subjects. Billboards, toy models and movie sets often have more presence than the characters in such films as Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988).

Yet it would be wrong to associate Burton with artists like Brian De Palma or Quentin Tarantino, in whose work quotations from previous, beloved movies are virtuosic, detachable and rather exhibitionistic – daring us to spot the allusions and admire their postmodern reworkings.

Burton is certainly a mannerist, obsessed with the cinema of the past, but he is closer in temperament to Scorsese or Kusturica. He is like a mystic channeler or medium, someone through whom the energy of yesterday's cinema travels, transforming itself in the process and finding a new audience. Where Gus Van Sant's Psycho (1998) was a sorry, still-born experiment in re-inventing a past cinematic form, Sleepy Hollow is vivid, exciting and splendid.

Burton fixes not on particular classic films, but larger, more amorphous group styles – the style of a past genre, studio or period. Burton's major reference point in Sleepy Hollow is the legacy of Hammer horror, especially the films of Terence Fisher (Dracula, 1958). He lets the mood and texture of these British films of the 1950s and '60s seep into his own in a dozen different ways – including, most visibly, a delightful cameo from Christopher Lee. The films of Mario Bava (Black Sunday, 1961) and Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) are other models cited by Burton.

Burton's skill in the pastiche department is incomparable – as the exact recreations of Z-movies in Ed Wood (1995) amply showed. But duplication or homage are rarely ends in themselves for him. His films are stunning, subtle hybrids, marrying the essence of past styles to contemporary obsessions and sensibilities. He is more a conductor than a wily appropriation artist – and his instincts, his intuition, rarely let him down.

Like David Lynch, Burton is not primarily an intellectual artist. In the era of Edward Scissorhands (1990) he spoke of simply "putting images out there", without necessarily being on top of their meaning or force. His best films tend to be fuzzy, dreamlike amalgams of striking images, generic high-points and intensely ambiguous emotions – gorgeous objects at once precise and mysterious.

This unconscious approach is still Burton's creed: while asserting that the figure of the Headless Horseman is "a great symbol", he confesses, "I don't know what the power is exactly". But he translates that enigmatic power unerringly, in images of gushing blood and body-horror that recall Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), and condensed, hallucinatory flashbacks reminiscent of such Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger films as Black Narcissus (1946) and Tales of Hoffmann (1951).

Storytelling, in the driven, tunnel-vision mode favoured by American cinema these days, has never been Burton's forte. In the case of the underrated Mars Attacks! (1996), this led to a movie so scatty and eccentric – and so little interested in plot – that the director's grasp of commercial appeal was widely doubted within the American industry. Of course, what the studio professionals refused to acknowledge in that film was not only its surreal, anarchic humour but its subversive, all-the-way satire.

Sleepy Hollow takes a different approach. This time, Burton has made sure he has a terrific mystery-thriller plot as his guide – often quaintly old-fashioned in its workings, but always involving. Burton again shows himself to be a master of an ironically 'camp' self-consciousness. The tone of the film is lightly mocking (alongside everything else, it is a wonderfully funny piece), but nonetheless it remains respectful of the necessary illusions (of plot and character) that secure our enjoyment.

Depp is the flesh and blood embodiment of this camp-but-respectful attitude. Burton has always pushed him to extremes of mannerism and mimicry. But the actor never approaches these roles in an alienated, distant or superior way. Ichabod's belief in himself (like Ed Wood's) is the guiding thread that grounds the tale in a bedrock of emotional reality, no matter how fanciful and frightening everything surrounding the hero becomes. And Ichabod's stereotypically feminine responses – fainting fits, panic attacks, flutters and trembles – humanise his brave, rationalist facade.

Just as Sleepy Hollow shows an advance in Burton's storytelling craft, it also reveals a greater investment in actors and their presence. Like in a Murnau movie, every player is given his or her own special way of inhabiting the film frame. Depp nervously darts in and out of the picture, disappearing from one side and then suddenly reappearing at the other to make some decisive, argumentative point. Ricci is forever still, pale, luminescent, as if touched and guided by the waves of a gentle dream. Lisa Marie (as Lady Crane) is given a more phantasmagoric presence, levitating ethereally or lurching forward grotesquely in a river of blood reminiscent of Kubrick's The Shining (1980).

But if the magic of Sleepy Hollow can be summed up in any one element, it is the performance of Christopher Walken. He has long been among the cinema's strangest and most compelling presences, especially in the Abel Ferrara films King of New York (1990), The Addiction (1995), The Funeral (1996) and New Rose Hotel (1998).

Without a single line (but plenty of growls), sporting the sharpest of teeth and the fiercest of glares, Walken is able to transport this movie from the cute to the utterly terrifying in a single second. He is vengeance incarnate, a soul or spirit deeply troubled and unresolved. Through Walken, Burton renews his love for everything in high art and popular culture that is mad, undead – and magnificent.

MORE Burton: Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

© Adrian Martin January 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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