Sleepy Hollow (1999) Punks an American Revolution Myth

The History of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The story first appeared in print in 1820 as a short story. Since then, it’s gone on to be one of the most enduring American ghost stories of all time. In Washington Irving’s original tale, a hapless schoolteacher in New York state is pursued by a ghost in 1790. I remember watching a short Disney adaptation at Halloween every year in elementary school. Compared to its adaptation by director Tim Burton in 1999, that was definitely child’s play.

The Movie Punks the Original

johnny_deep_sleepy_hollow_002In 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. Unlike his comrades, he’s convinced science and reason lay 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. 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, Richard Griffiths and Mr. Dursley in the Harry Potter films. Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and Ian McDiarmid (Star Wars Episodes 1-3) also make an appearance. They assure Crane the murderer is not only a ghost, but one that takes the heads of his victims with him as a souvenir.

1767bThe story goes that the Headless Horseman was once a Hessian soldier during the American Revolution. “Hessian” was the nickname given to German mercenary troops hired by the British during the late 1700s. Most of them hailed from the province of Hesse. The unnamed Hessian who haunts the hollow was said to be in the conflict for the sheer love of the kill. He specialized in beheading from horseback. He also 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.

christina-ricci-sleepy-hollowCrane 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.


What I Thought of Sleepy Hollow

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. Many people die in the course of the film, either in the present or in flashbacks. Not surprisingly, most of them die by decapitation. There is also a weird, twisted tree that bleeds while it acts as a gateway to Hell. So, if blood makes you queasy, sit this one out.

Poster by Benjamin FranklinOne 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 by force. 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. 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.

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