We nearly ended up with something very different for this literary adaptation. I have to admit I'm not familiar with the source material, but I know enough about it to know that the legend of the headless horseman isn't exactly something that has a lot of depth and lore around it and that it's essentially the equivalent of a creepypasta in today's terminology. I suppose that gives an adaptation a certain level of creative freedom, and as a result, this was originally pitched as a "pretentious slasher with a spectacular murder every five minutes" by Kevin Yagher, a make-up artist on Tales from the Crypt who wanted to write and direct it. His credit on the film was demoted to Special Effects Artist when Paramount decided that was a bad direction for Sleepy Hollow to go in, and later Tim Burton was hired as director. Burton came with his own history with the headless horseman, a character that he first encountered as an intern at Disney Animation Studios when working on The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Now, on paper, it seems like something I should love. It's a Tim Burton horror film that's clearly made with love, that he sets up as an homage to classic Hammer Horrors and Giallo films, all of this should get me really excited, and it does. But Sleepy Hollow is just, kinda. alright.
The story starts in 1799 where we meet Ichabod Crane, a New York City policeman who has a bit of a thing for using scientific methods to aid the prevention and detection of crime, something that's fairly controversial in pre-industrial America. He's sent to a Dutch hamlet named Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of decapitations, and that's where we first come into contact with the legend of the headless horseman. From there, I'm not sure whether it's a positive or a negative for the film, as it could easily be argued from either side, but I tend to remember moments rather than any kind of cohesive story. Everything is driven by the two ideas - a man of science before science investigates a headless horseman - but it all tends to build towards stylistic flashes rather than being overly concerned with stringing together a compelling narrative. To that extent, I think it's a shame. There are very obvious leads taken from the Giallo genre, but where a lot of the fun with Giallo is the kind of "solve along" audience participation aspect of it all, Sleepy Hollow really doesn't seem to even want to entertain that.
It's all a lot more concerned with the aesthetic. Ichabod Crane has a number of gadgets that look wonderful until a moment's thought is put into them when a realisation is quickly made that all these gadgets really amount to is magnifying glasses that are so distorting that no wonder the people around him question the legitimacy of his methods. The cinematography, the set design, and the general atmosphere of every shot, though, are done with the bleak mastery that you'd expect of Tim Burton. In the same way that Hammer resurrected the gothic style of classic horror films in a time when Cold War creature features were the majority of the mainstream of the genre, I can imagine that Sleepy Hollow was Burton's attempt at doing the same in the age of the slasher becoming the be-all and end-all of horror in the 90s. This is also one of the latter examples of a film that relies mostly on practical effects, and it's worth noting that a large part of why the visuals of this hold up so well is that that's the case. Given that we're experiencing a crisis of sorts of CGI in Hollywood today, maybe it wouldn't be a terrible idea to revisit the techniques of yesterday.
As much as the production design makes this easily identifiable as a Tim Burton film, so does its cast. Ichabod Crane is played by Johnny Depp in what feels like it might have been a major contributing factor in him later becoming Jack Sparrow. At the very least, I'd be surprised if Russell Brand didn't love this film in his formative years. But in what is perhaps the best casting of any Tim Burton film, we have Christopher Walken as the headless horseman himself. It's astonishing that Walken doesn't have a more impressive history as a horror actor, and I'm sure that anyone watching this with little knowledge of who he is would easily assume that he was the horror legend of the piece rather than Christopher Lee. That isn't something that I say lightly. It's a popular opinion that Walken is an actor who can do just about anything given the chance, and for good reason, but there's something very special about him as a horror villain and I hope we see him in a similar role again.
There's a lot of good to Sleepy Hollow, and in the context of 90s horror, it's a very necessary film to stand against a tide of generic slashers. On a personal level, though, I spent most of it wishing I was watching Edward Scissorhands instead. It's ultimately quite forgettable for all of the reasons that a great film isn't, and it's memorable for all of the reasons that Tim Burton films come into criticism for. I think it's fair to call this a triumph of style over substance, but perhaps that's quite appropriate for a film about a legend with no lore.