Steampunk Movie Review: Sleepy Hollow (1999)
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow first appeared as a short story in 1820, and has gone on to be one of the most enduring American ghost stories of all time. In the original short story by Washington Irving, a hapless schoolteacher by the name of Ichabod Crane is pursued by the ghost that haunts his village in the year 1790 in New York state. I remember watching a short film of this story at Halloween every year in elementary school, and compared to its adaptation by director Tim Burton in 1999, that was definitely child’s play.
In the film, the character of Ichabod Crane has been fundamentally altered, except perhaps for still being a bit on the hapless side. Crane (Johnny Depp) is a police constable in 1799 in New York City who is convinced that science and reason are at the heart of solving crimes. To test his claims, his superiors send him to a small town where a rash of mysterious murders has broken out, so he packs his chemistry set and goofy-looking spectacles and head to the beleaguered hamlet of Sleepy Hollow. He meets with the town elders, including many familiar faces from recent films such as Michael Cambon and Richard Griffiths who played Dumbledore and Mr. Dursley in the Harry Potter films, as well as Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and Ian McDiarmid (Star Wars Episodes 1-3). They assure him the murderer is not only a ghost, but one that takes the heads of his victims with him as a souvenir.
The story goes that the Headless Horseman was once a Hessian soldier during the American Revolution. I’d heard that word lots of times but it was only when I re-watched the film for this review that I finally looked it up. “Hessian” was the nickname given to German mercenary troops hired by the British during a number of conflicts in the late 1700s, most of whom came from the province of Hesse. The unnamed Hessian who haunts the hollow was said to be in the conflict, not for money, but for the love of the kill. His specialty was beheading via horseback and he filed his teeth into points to add to his gruesome visage. And in true Tim Burton fashion, the Horseman (Christopher Walkin) is depicted as the thing that nightmares are scared of.
Crane must set aside his love of reason if he is going to get to the bottom of this string of seemingly unrelated crimes, and with the help of a good-hearted witch (Christina Ricci), he might just succeed before he loses his head.
I really liked this movie as an adult, but I do remember thinking it was really gross when it first came out. Maybe it was just that I hadn’t seen as many gory movies yet, or that later films have gotten that much worse, but it didn’t bug me that much this time around. The gray ambience that generally permeates the town makes the deep crimson of blood really stand out in a way that is actually quite stunning, if a teeny bit tummy churning. Many people die in the course of the film, either in the present or in flashbacks, and not surprisingly, most of them are by decapitation. There is also a weird, twisted tree that bleeds when it is cut and acts as a gateway to Hell.
One of the things that stood out to me the most is that Crane is not a hero, at least, not in a traditional sense. His bookishness aside, he is in fact a coward. He is afraid of spiders, he puts women and children between himself and the danger, and when he finally sees the Horseman himself he becomes a blithering idiot (at least for a little while.) I liked how he was wasn’t a very good rider, and does not win at the end by killing the evil force, rather he returns something that has been lost. The character also says one of my all time favorite quotes, which has been immortalized in a poster at right.
I would definitely recommend this film as both a scary and well-made horror flick, as well as a fun bit of Steampunk. As I discussed at the end of last month, the supernatural has as much claim to the steam era as new technology, and this is an intersection where a person’s science can’t hold up against the greater forces he is facing.