We are back with another entry into our Fall Themed Horror series. Today we are taking a look at Tim Burton’s supernatural horror movie Sleepy Hollow. Once again I am quite happy to be reviewing a movie that is unequivocally set in autumn. Featuring a number of Tim Burton’s favourite themes including Jack-o-lanterns, skeletons, and excessive amounts of cleavage, Sleepy Hollow is a fun Hollywood horror.
I feel like this movie is unlike anything I have reviewed before. Sure, Knockout Horror is a relatively new site and 2022 is the first year I have put actual time and effort into it. With that in mind, however, I have reviewed a decent range of stuff. From big name movies to animated horror, from found footage to independent flicks and plenty in-between. Nothing feels quite like Sleepy Hollow. It’s a strange movie to place. Take away the decapitations and blood and it could almost be a fun family romp. That being said, let’s get a little deeper into it.
As always I will give a quick spoiler free breakdown of the movie which you can skip if you like. This is an epically long review, even by my standards, so I apologise for that. I’ve thrown in some extra pics of Johnny Depp looking a mixture of ridiculously handsome and hilarious and some shots of Christina Ricci’s cleavage to drive engagement. That’s how this works, right?
November is Fall themed Horror month. We will be reviewing a few movies every week that feature an autumn setting. The criteria is pretty broad here as the fall setting is rarely pivotal to the plot of a movie. It’s more of a coincidence than anything. Fallen leaves and orange hues are a must, however. When Fall Themed Horror month is over, we move onto December and Awful Advent. 25 days of Christmas themed horror reviews leading up to the big day. Definitely keep an eye out for that.
Sleepy Hollow starts with a man riding down a dark road in a horse drawn carriage. Sensing something is wrong, the man looks out of the window only to notice that his driver’s head has been removed. Horrified, the man jumps out and begins running into the corn fields. Minutes later a figure on a horse appears out of the darkness and decapitates him. It becomes clear that this is only one in a series of decapitations. New York city police constable Ichabod Crane, played by Johnny Depp, is dispatched to the town of Sleepy Hollow to attempt to get to the bottom of the mysterious murders taking place.
Lambasted for his use of scientific method when investigating, Crane is a somewhat awkward man with a dislike for gore and a propensity for fainting. While staying in Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod lodges with the Van Tassel family – Baltus, played by Michael Gambon, his second wife Lady Van Tassel, played by Miranda Richardson, and Baltus’ daughter from his first marriage Katrina, played by Christina Ricci. Crane appears to be somewhat captivated by the young Katrina and seeks her assistance in his investigation.
The residents of Sleepy Hollow believe that a headless horseman is murdering the people of the village and taking their heads. They tell Crane of the legend of a Hessian warrior, played by a terrifying looking Christopher Walken, who was decapitated during the American Revolutionary war. The residents think he is now killing others while searching for his head. Crane, sceptical of the supernatural due to his mother, a supposed witch, being killed by his father years ago, does not believe them. Ichabod thinks the murderer must be of flesh.
After a fourth person is killed, Crane enlists the help of the man’s son, Young Masbath played by Mark Pickering. The pair head out to the West Woods to search for the horseman’s grave. While there, they encounter an old crone living in a cave who tells Ichabod that the horseman’s grave can be found by taking the Indian trail to the tree of the dead. Deciding to head there straight away, the pair come across Katrina Van Tassel who has come to find them. The group head down the Indian trail eventually coming to The Tree of the Dead.
Realising the earth has been recently disturbed, Crane digs up the body of the headless horseman. Noticing that the head is missing, Crane deduces that someone must have taken the head and is now controlling the horseman. It becomes apparent that the tree acts as a portal from the underworld when the group are shocked by the horseman suddenly emerging and charging past them. Crane follows in hot pursuit realising that someone is in grave danger.
Sleepy Hollow is a gothic supernatural horror movie with some significant nods to the British Hammer Horror era of the 70s. Originally earmarked to be directed by special effects guru Kevin Yagher, Sleepy Hollow was all set to be a low budget slasher. Differences between Yagher and Paramount Pictures led to him being replaced by Tim Burton who was given a bigger budget and far more creative freedom. What resulted from that is a quintessentially Burton film with a high profile cast and buckets of gore.
Burton had never directed a true horror movie before, despite him claiming that it is his favourite genre. Deciding to create Sleepy Hollow as something of an homage to 60s and 70s British horror, Tim Burton used many of the same techniques as movies made in this era to give the film the same feel. Using sets built almost entirely on sound stages, Burton retained control over every facet of the movie’s look and aesthetic. Filmed almost completely in the UK, the production required a full town to be built to create the exact look that the movie required. The results were very impressive with a suitably period looking environment laced with Burton’s trademark visual touches to make something rather unique.
Sleepy Hollow begins as somewhat of a mystery movie. The Headless Horseman is something of an enigma. A boogieman to the people of the town. His story is expanded on gradually as we uncover the motive for the killings. The viewer is placed as something of a companion to Ichabod Crane. Though we see events taking place, we are never really given an explanation for them. It is only when Crane uncovers the mystery that we start to learn a little more about what is going on.
This slow unravelling of the story makes for some seriously suspenseful moments. It is never very clear what the motives behind the killings are. This means you are never really sure who will be the next victim. The appearance of the horseman is accompanied by heavy winds and fleeing animals. This visual cue does a fantastic job of adding to the tension of the movie and builds up a few genuine horror scares. The fact that our protagonist is somewhat inept only adds to this. Crane feels a bit useless and his sensitive disposition lends itself well to a feeling of vulnerability. He doesn’t feel like a hero so much as a scared person attempting to do his job.
What might be quite surprising about Sleepy Hollow is just how much it leans into being an action movie. You would be forgiven for assuming that the horseman arrives, removes heads and leaves much like any slasher villain. This isn’t always the case, however. The horseman is incredibly adept at wielding numerous types of weaponry and his skills riding a horse are particularly noteworthy. Skilled Scottish stuntman and actor Ray Park, perhaps best known as Star Wars’ Darth Maul, doubles for Christopher Walken for the horseman’s action scenes. He brings along an almost cartoon like ability to swing swords and axes.
Many of the scenes are fast paced and full of flair. We have a whole bevy of interestingly choregraphed sword fights, horse chases, explosions and the like. As we reach the final stanza, the movie pretty much transforms into a full on action flick. With this in mind, it is actually surprising that the movie features so much gore. Kids would be sure to love some of the chases and fights in the movie. I would go as far as to say it all feels a little bit out of place in a horror movie.
The story of Sleepy Hollow is, obviously, a classic American tale. Dating back to the 1810s, the film is based on the gothic short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Taking a fair amount of creative license, Tim Burton’s telling of the story is significantly different and a few of the characters are changed. These changes go a fair way to transforming the story into a compelling and engaging supernatural horror movie.
Ichabod Crane, as a character, is softened in this retelling of the story. Far more sympathetic and focusing less on his strange appearance, Crane is a likeable character with only good intentions and justice at heart. No longer a schoolmaster, Crane is a constable concerned with helping the people of Sleepy Hollow. The horseman is still a Hessian Warrior but the spectre is actually real and not just a prank by Brom Van Brunt, played here by Casper Van Dien. The original story of Sleepy Hollow would likely not have held up in this modern age. While it could be produced with a whole ton of atmosphere, the story is not at all scary and the reality of the horseman undermines any sense of threat.
The fact that the horseman here is real and actually claiming victims works fantastically well. The mystery of the story and the constant question of “who’s next?” keeps the viewer on edge from start to finish. Added to this is a subtle commitment to humour throughout. Johnny Depp is an underrated comedic actor with incredible timing and an ability to draw a laugh with simple expressions. His random fainting spells and general intolerance for gore make for some genuinely hilarious moments. Combined with Andrew Walker’s witty screenplay, Sleepy Hollow is a legitimately funny movie throughout.
If Burton’s movies do nothing else they manage to draw together some of the acting world’s greats. His love of old horror shines through here with the casting of some Hammer Horror stalwarts. Frequent collaborator Christopher Lee receives a high billing for a tiny role as a New York Judge and Michael Gough was lured out of retirement to play Notary Hardenbrook. I am fairly sure he would have dug up Vincent Price to play the Horseman’s missing skull if they would have let him. Burton’s affection for British cinema is on full display as well. British actors Richard Griffiths, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, and Steven Waddington, among others, are all afforded sizeable roles.
From the American end, we have Christopher Walken in a small but pivotal part as the Hessian Warrior. Burton’s ex wife Lisa Marie has a fleeting appearance as Crane’s ridiculously well bosomed witch mother. Christina Ricci looks mesmerising as Katrina, the young love interest of Ichabod Crane. Casper Van Dien features at the height of his popularity playing village mischief maker Bront and Johnny Depp stars as the clumsy protagonist Crane. It is an incredibly talented cast and a veritable who’s who of 90’s Hollywood.
Acting is incredibly solid throughout. It is pointless picking out poor performances as there really aren’t any. With that being said, Christina Ricci perhaps struggles a little as Katrina Van Tassel. Fans of Ricci will probably point out how different she looks in this role. Typically found to be playing slightly awkward, outcast, characters. Ricci is a fantastic actor that has probably not gotten much of the praise she has deserved for some of her roles over the years. Transitioning from child actor to serious adult actor while maintaining a high profile is not an easy task.
Ricci looks incredibly fitting as Katrina despite her seemingly not matching the stereotypical blonde beauty role. She absolutely stands out thanks to her stunning outfit design, magnificent hair, and pasty complexion. Ricci’s strong Irish and Scottish ancestry work wonders for her here. I imagine many people perhaps think of her first when Sleepy Hollow comes to mind. I know my fiancée loves to shout “I DO!!” whenever Katrina asks “Who’s got a kiss for the pickity witch?”. Her colour palette and flowing clothes stand out against a backdrop of drab, grey, characters. Ricci risks putting on a Winona Ryder in Dracula-esque performance for a little while here. She struggles a little with line delivery in parts but warms up tremendously as the movie goes on.
The stand out performance here is Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane. Controversy aside, Depp, when he is invested in a role, is one of the best actors of the last 30 years. It is all the more disappointing that some of his performances, in recent years, have been lacklustre because few actors can become a character as well as he can.
Depp affords Crane a sense of delicate sensitivity that makes the character feel vulnerable and easy to like. His subtle micro-expressions lend humour to every scene. Nobody manages to mix silly and serious quite as well as he does. Completely unafraid to make a fool of himself, Depp never hints at any sense of irony when donning ridiculous magnifying glasses and using Crane’s bizarre scientific tools. A brilliant performance that is the highlight of the movie. It’s a real surprise that Depp has never been able to watch this film back due to disappointment in the way he acted.
Despite Tim Burton not making any real horror movies up to the point of Sleepy Hollow’s 99 release, this is very much a Tim Burton movie. Aside from numerous references to his previous films including The Nightmare Before Christmas; the gallons of orange tinted blood and theatrical violence is something that would be seen again in Sweeney Todd 9 years later. The autumn feeling of the movie is true to the original story with fallen leaves and jack-o-lanterns seen throughout.
Everything here feels very Burton. He clearly had a huge influence on the set design. The layers of fog covering much of the landscape are very typical of his work. Much of the movie is set in the dead of night. The lighting utilised makes everything look as if it takes place under a full moon. There is a slight feeling of surreal dreaminess to many of the scenes. We also see the use of flashbacks which is something Burton is well known for. Crane’s mum spinning up in to the air surrounded by a bright white backdrop is the type of scene that only Tim Burton could get away with. It would be remiss of me to not also mention the heaving cleavages that Burton loves so much. Helena Bonham Carter in Sweeney Todd is further proof of this.
Cinematography, courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki, is fantastic throughout. Made almost entirely on sound stages, the camera work is always great. The flexibility offered by the way the sets are designed shines through with some truly interesting shots. The camera can genuinely get anywhere to enhance the image presented. Colours are muted, as per Tim Burton tradition, with a heavy focus on blacks and whites. The contrast between characters designs and clothing helps the viewer buy into said character’s respective place in the plot. Katrina Van Tassel is a perfect example of this. Sleepy Hollow was a well deserving winner of the 2000 Academy Award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. When watching the movie, it is obvious why it was given this accolade.
Frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman provides the soundtrack for Sleepy Hollow. It probably goes without saying that it is fantastic and entirely fitting. Danny Elfman seems to have a knack for scoring Burton’s films and just instinctively knows what will fit. The music here is grandiose and upbeat with some particularly interesting tracks during action scenes. Sound is very fitting and used expertly to scare the viewer and keep them on edge. Sword fights are fantastic and the booming of the Horseman galloping into shots works perfectly to build tension.
Special effects deserve mention. There is a heavy use of practical effects and they are always great. The levels of gore here are fairly high and the sight of decapitated corpses is always striking. The decapitations themselves look fantastic and the sword hits with a suitable audible thud. The headless horseman looks excellent and not just like a guy wearing a costume. The movie features fires, explosions, and more killings than your average slasher. All in all, it is a visual treat to behold.
This is, obviously, a topic that comes up often when reviewing horror. Few genres are as broad as horror. Horror is starting to feel more like a theme than a genre. It is often secondary to another genre, be it thriller, action, drama. This makes horror movies hard to define. Some people may class Sleepy Hollow as more of an action mystery whatever movie. With this in mind, it is reasonable to assume that some horror fans may not enjoy it. It is worth pointing out that some people just don’t like Tim Burton’s movies. If that is the case then you may want to avoid this film as Sleepy Hollow is very Tim Burton.
There is a humour throughout the movie that maybe doesn’t lend itself particularly well to full on horror. Sleepy Hollow could be described as somewhat campy. Think Hammer Horror for the modern age. There are buckets of gore and some genuinely scary moments, however, so I actually don’t think that the horror classification is a real issue. The fact remains, though, that Sleepy Hollow isn’t particularly scary. There are some tense moments and the horseman’s appearance always draws a feeling of unease. There is a decent amount of atmosphere throughout but the mystery of the story takes centre stage here.
The film turns into a, pretty much, full on action movie half way through and this is sure to put some people off. When the protagonist displays a lack of fear of the villain it can undermine the horror element quite significantly. That doesn’t stop the victim count growing, however. It just means that Sleepy Hollow feels somewhat like a mix between Indiana Jones and Friday the 13th.
If there wasn’t so much gore here, this would have been a great movie for children. There is no bad language, no nudity, no graphic sex and the action scenes are excellent. The comedy would have kids laughing in the same way they do at Pirates of the Caribbean. It almost feels strange in parts that this movie has a 15 rating. It is comical and full of sword fights, horse chases, and a light romance subplot. Kids love that stuff, right?
As it stands, however, unless you are okay with your kids seeing people being violently chopped in half, stabbed, and decapitated, you might want to wait until they hit their early teens. I think Burton could have maybe gone with less gore and toned down the decapitations. This would have meant he could offer the movie up to a whole new generation of fans. I still think that Sleepy Hollow is absolutely fine with young teens, however. They will likely enjoy the movie while not being too bothered by the gore.
Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow is a fun, action packed horror movie with a keen sense of humour and buckets of gore. Featuring a mystery plot that slowly unravels before leading to a frantic conclusion, Sleepy Hollow is both enjoyable and easy to watch. While not being scary, the movie features some brutal scenes, a high kill count, and a tense atmosphere.
Well acted throughout, Sleepy Hollow features a stand out performance by Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane and Christina Ricci is mesmerizing in one of her most iconic looks. Cinematography is fantastic and Burton's distinctive style is on show throughout. Turning into a full blown action movie towards the end, Sleepy Hollow may not be for everyone. Full of comedic moments, it abandons its horror leanings for a fast paced ending. It is, however, an absolutely fantastic movie, perfectly fitting for our Fall Themed Horror feature, and essential watching for fans of horror.