Sleepy Hollow (1999) A Beautiful Dark World… Where Heads Will Roll…


Tim Burton directed Sleepy Hollow; the film allows us into Tim Burton’s world. He is known for eccentric films such as Edward Scissorhands: 1990, The Nightmare Before Christmas: 1993 and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: 2007. Burton has won 21 awards and has been nominated for over 40. Burton is known for his instantly recognisable style that is evident in Sleepy Hollow, a twisted version of Irving’s story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a classic short story. Burtons approach to Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman as if it were a silent film. “We tried to make the stage look as real as possible and the stuff on location as fake as possible so that it would intermingle and match.”

Sleepy Hollow is based in a small town full of mystery and terror. Ichabod Crane played by Johnny Depp, is sent to Sleepy Hollow to inspect the decapitations of 3 people from the town. The town’s hysteria and folklore creates the curse of the Headless Horseman, being the culprit for these murders. Crane is plunged into the middle of secrets and murder that his new world forensic techniques may not be able to solve. The dark secret of Sleepy Hollow also reflects the dark secret from Ichabod’s past that is haunting him. Crane is immersed into the world of the Hessian Horseman (Christopher Walken) a German mercenary who was known for decapitating people during the American War for Independence.

Sleepy Hollow is full of secrets and mystery. Sleepy Hollow is set around a gothic horror story based on a traditional folklore tale about a headless murderer, sent to kill the residents of Sleepy Hollow. The themes of the film are based on terror and full of dread, as an unknown force decapitates the towns people, while they are helpless and terrified that they will be next. This creates further themes of panic and anxiety. Burton’s motifs for the film were to keep to the themes of Hammers horror films, which was a British production company known for gothic horror films made in the mid-1950-70. Sleepy Hollow also keeps to the gothic style of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry and tales, with mist and crows creeping in the audiences mind. This links to Hammer’s gothic style of filming.

Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane a squeamish and eccentric man. Johnny Depp could be seen as the filming-partner to Burton. Crane is fascinated by forensics and scientific evidence. In Sleepy Hollow Ichabod reflects the ever-logical mind, thinking too much which fits with the ever-confusing mystery. Christopher Walken plays the Hessian Horseman. The headless horseman is a key character to the film, Burton found the image of the horseman important to the film and the audience, and (Tim Burton) “We all look at people’s eyes to categorise them. But here you’ve got this powerful, elegant character without a head. The Headless Horseman represents the subconscious”. Christina Ricci plays the leading lady Katrina Van Tassel. Katrina is a beautiful, doe eyed, elegant girl who is a mystery, who charms Ichabod entirely.

The production designer is Rick Heinrichs who is famous for working in films such as Fargo (1996) The Big Lebowski (1998) Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Rick Heinrichs creates a beautiful dark world, rich in shadows and mist. The crew who worked in the production of Sleepy Hollow said “The feeling one had walking around Sleepy Hollow’s sets, and in particular the town at Lime Tree, was almost as if you were walking around the inside of Tim Burton’s head”.

My favourite scene in the film is when Ichabod goes with the townspeople to look at a decapitated body. The scene shows Ichabod trying to re-enact the murder, to find clues as to what killed the man, hoping to disprove the legend. The scene shows the captivating performance by Johnny Depp but also the dark quality the film has. The townspeople whisper, and clutch their crosses, fearing the demon that has committed the act. This scene illustrates the dominant themes of the film, mystery, murder and panic.


Sleepy Hollow has a captivating luminescent quality because of the camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki. He is known for filming Gravity (2013), Children of Men (2006) and Burn After Reading (2008). This luminescent quality makes for a beautiful horror movie that mesmerizes the audience. Lubezki has a clear eye for eccentric visual details. He creates a mixture of dark hues and earthy tones to add to the foggy darkness quality of the film. He also uses bloody red tones for the decapitation scenes.

The visual colour works in harmony with the music. Danny Elfman is known for films such as Corpse Bride (2005), Wanted (2008) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012). The films have different genres and styles however the quality of music never falters. Elfman uses soft violins to create the idea of mystery. He also uses energetic brass instruments to create a ghostly atmosphere and bells for a shadowy effect as well as a sharp sense of aloofness, that is present in scenes of decapitation and the dream like states used. Elfman’s music works stunningly with the cinematography, creating the horror, which makes Sleepy Hollow such a stunning, suspenseful watch.

Sleepy Hollow creates a daunting atmosphere, with ghoulish landscapes. Although it is clearly visually stunning there is a sense of hopelessness about the ending, that it is not truly over. The film is somewhat anticlimactic because of the lack of fear, though a horror film it is not truly fearful it is still captivating. I found the film to be clever with its use of cinematography, for example the judge in the beginning of the film, is positioned to seem as if he has wings, sending Ichabod on his journey to Sleepy Hollow. In addition to the scene in which the headless horseman is present in, the camera is angled low as if to make the horseman bigger and thus more powerful, scary for the audience. I would suggest any fan of Burton’s previous work to watch this, but also anyone who likes a mystery and a touch of the gothic.



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