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October 4th, 2012


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11:55 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: Sleepy Hollow
Some time ago, the AV Club did a feature called "Falling Out of Love Hard", in which their regular contributors listed bits of pop culture that they've outgrown. Somebody named Sam Adams pointed to Sleepy Hollow as the precise moment when Tim Burton's oeuvre took a nosedive into mediocrity. Myself, I can totally see that Tim Burton is repeating himself, but I'm perfectly fine with that. I won't defend every one of his films -- I couldn't keep myself interested in Alice, and Mars Attacks! -- a movie whose in-jokes I get as much as anybody could hope to -- gets tedious. Generally, though, Tim Burton has developed a style and managed to apply it over and over, usually with great success.

Sleepy Hollow, which came out in late 1999, is a bit of a nostalgia piece for me. I was 19 years old, and like most people in their early thirties, I have a tendency to remember that age as much more pleasant and optimistic than it really was. All I know is that I had a helluva lot more free time and fewer bills to pay. The opening chords of a Ben Folds Five song or the casual misuse of the phrase "56.6k modem" can bring me right back.

You're not here to reminisce, though. You're here to wonder idly if I'll ever get to the point.

This evening (the answer to your question is no, by the way), my wife and I were at the park with our dog, and found a trail we hadn't noticed before. There was hollow tree next to the path -- apparently healthy, but hollow -- which reminded her of the Tree With All The Heads In It from Sleepy Hollow, so at her suggestion, that's what we watched tonight. And damn if it isn't still pretty good. I'm going to take it as read that you've seen it, or at least remember the plot of some other version.

The trick, I think, to really appreciating Sleepy Hollow, is recognizing its influences. Sleepy Hollow is a movie constructed of references to other films. It's a love-letter to films of Hammer Film Productions and Amicus Productions, and Burton doesn't try to hide that from the people who will recognize it. He even goes so far as to cast veteran Brits all of whom look like they could have done some fine scenery chewing in front of Hammer's cameras: Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid, Michaels Gough and Gambon, and Miranda Richardson, who makes a fine stand-in for Ingrid Pitt (look her up, but turn SafeSearch on first). The other players are good, too, and I find Johnny Depp's performance very compelling. He's made a career out of playing outsiders, and certainly he'd done so for Burton in the past, but I think Ichabod Crane might be his best performance in a Burton film. Eventually he sort of devolved into self-parody, but he really finds the right note in his portrayal of Crane as a man of science who should know better than to be so squeamish.

The film's visual design is a gorgeous combination of warm and inviting Americana with the heavy, Gothic colonial setting we so often see in American horror. It's a common juxtaposition of elements, but Burton does it so well here. The crisp, autumn vales and lonely wooded roads of New England have never looked so inviting or foreboding. If Sleepy Hollow failed on every other level, we could still call it a triumph of production design. Most of the special effects are practical, which I find impressive. The CGI looks dated now, but at least there isn't much of it. Danny Elfman's soundtrack, too, is wonderful; yes, it's overwrought and bombastic, but it fits the movie so well.

If the film has a major failing, it's the story, which manages to retain the whole Hessian soldier subplot (usually excised from adaptations of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), but falls apart in Scooby Doo silliness in the final act. I've seen the movie so many times now, and I'm sure that on my first viewing I followed the explanation of the conspiracy at the end, but I don't think I could summarize it for you. The story veers wildly off the course of Washington Irving's original, and that's fine -- I don't see how you could get even 90 minutes out of the source material, anyway. I also feel, given that it's a call back to the horror films of an earlier age, that the contrivance of the whodunnit mystery and the false ending preceding the climax are forgivable. I don't think I've considered it before, but Sleepy Hollow is a movie I watch for the immersive experience, and not for its plot. Usually I can only say that of David Lynch films, but this is much more accessible.

I don't really know what it is that Sam Adams didn't like about Sleepy Hollow. He says that this is the moment when Burton began blatantly to repeat himself, but I really don't see that. This is an amazingly well-crafted film, and a flattering homage to its roots. In fact, this might be where Burton peaked for me; Sleepy Hollow was followed by his underwhelming remake of Planet of the Apes, since which time he's stuck to what he's good at. Every film isn't a success, but he manages to retread the same ground without becoming stagnant. I'm impressed.

Here's the trailer, and unrelated, here's the song Authenticity Trip by They Might Be Giants, simply because I like it and it name-drops Ichabod Crane.

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31 Days of Halloween: Sleepy Hollow - Garmonbozia for the soul.

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