The Cage Of Reason

Film still for The Cage Of Reason

Sleepy Hollow revisits America's first monster, but is it really about the high-school bully, asks Kim Newman

"The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head has been carried away by a cannon ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk, hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind."

Originally published in The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819-20), Washington Irving's short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a humorous character study, holding up schoolmaster Ichabod Crane as an example of ludicrous superstition, rather than a true horror tale. The spook which pursues Ichabod through the woods is unmasked, Scooby-Doo style, as the ungainly scholar's romantic rival Brom Van Brunt, intent on scaring him away from pretty heiress Katrina van Tassel. Establishing the American order of lusty jock above too-thoughtful nerd, Brom gets the girl and Ichabod is persecuted into fleeing the town. "As he was a bachelor and in nobody's debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him," concludes Irving, never guessing that this confident preference for the muscular bully would eventually lead to Revenge of the Nerds and even the tragic shootings at Columbine High School. The bluff callousness strikes modern readers as rather chilling; we are now used to stories of worms who turn, sandy-faced weaklings who take Charles Atlas courses and speccy nerds who win the prom queen. The casual dismissal of Ichabod - first archetype of America's nightmare self-image, the loser - is as conceptually frightening to us as a real spectre was to him and would be to later ghost-story writers.

The Headless Horseman is the first truly American addition to the gallery of horror figures which evolved, over 100 years later, into the monster-movie pantheon. Like such comparable British characters as Frankenstein's monster and Dracula, the Horseman is a foreigner, an invader of sacred soil; like that other great bogus ghost the Hound of the Baskervilles, he is such a potent image that many later readers, and all film versions, have regretted he turns out to be a fake. Until Tim Burton's new film Sleepy Hollow, the most familiar version of the tale was a Disney cartoon narrated by Bing Crosby in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949) which boasts a flamboyantly animated ghost on a rearing steed, though dotty old Mrs Farren (Julia Dean) effectively retells the story, with only sound effects, as an aside in The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and there is a bland 1979 made-for-TV movie with Jeff Goldblum and Meg Foster well cast as Ichabod and Katrina.

All film and television versions of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are torn between Irving's smug, rational puncturing of superstition - which he links to Puritan America's witchcraft panic, noting Ichabod's devotion to the works of minister Cotton Mather - and the thrilling visual and dramatic possibilities of the ghost itself. Burton's Sleepy Hollow is not merely torn between rationality and superstition, but torn apart by the dichotomy, with each of the film's several significant creators drawing subtly different, mutually exclusive readings from the material. The project was originally developed by Kevin Yagher, the make-up effects man most famous for the animatronic doll Chucky in the Child's Play films and the Crypt Keeper in the Tales from the Crypt television series, as a follow-up to his inauspicious directorial debut Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), "un film de Alan Smithee". Working with Andrew Kevin Walker, a specialist in exploring more modern American horrors in Se7en (1995) and 8MM (1999), Yagher plotted Sleepy Hollow as a low-budget effects showcase with a spectacular murder every five minutes or so and a delight in the process of creating fake monsters that might have led him to sympathise with Irving's Brom - who is, after all, the first special make-up effects man in literature.

In the event the film was scaled up to a major big-budget release with several other visionaries involved - though like Se7en it remains at heart what Walker once characterised as "a pretentious slasher movie". Among the executive producers is Francis Ford Coppola, continuing an attachment to the genre begun with Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and developed in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994). Coppola has been working up a secondary career restoring to the horror genre the literary weight it once had, all the while trying to find ways of retelling old, old stories in new emotional-romantic lights, which may strike unusual chords with contemporary audiences but also work against what we may take as the primary purpose of the horror movie - to be scary. With Walker and Coppola on board, it should be no surprise that Sleepy Hollow, though shot in the English countryside, addresses the American roots of Irving's tale.

With the action laid in 1799, and Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) raising groans with a speech about how the millennium draws near and a new modern era is to begin, we are only a generation removed from the War of Independence, which created both the US and the Headless Horseman. The Crane who sets out from New York City to the upstate hamlet of Sleepy Hollow is explicitly an American who will interrogate transplanted Dutch and British old folks (the young principles are American actors, the character players almost all British). The hero's commitment to reason is born out of the tension between his Puritan father and witch mother, whose violent clash of beliefs has left him with memory blanks gradually filled in by bad dreams. His reaction has been to reject both their faiths in favour of a scientific method epitomised by Cronenbergian surgical implements and complex optical devices that never enable him to see anything.

This Ichabod is no mere pedagogue but a scientific policeman whose overconcern with matters of detection prompts his superiors to pack him off to Sleepy Hollow to enquire into a series of decapitations that has a symbolic as well as a literal gruesomeness, as the heads of the community are being lopped off. This is the sort of puzzle Walker has specialised in, and Depp's Ichabod merely follows the sleuths of Se7en and 8MM who crack the case but find out more than they want to know about themselves and the nature of the world in the process. There is a flaw in this conception, best understood by looking at The Hound of the Baskervilles: though Arthur Conan Doyle was a firm believer in ghosts, he knew the character of Sherlock Holmes could not co-exist in a universe with a genuine supernatural creature and therefore unmasked his hound as a mastiff coated in phosphorus. Sleepy Hollow establishes Crane if not as a Holmesian figure then as a clear predecessor of Edgar Allan Poe's ratiocinator Dupin, fussing with his crime-solving chemicals and probing always for motive and means. When faced with an actual apparition he collapses and takes to his bed to conclude his flashback memories and become reconciled to his mystic heritage, symbolised by his consultation of a wood witch and growing attraction to Katrina, who is herself magically inclined. However, there is a curtain behind the curtain, with Ichabod accepting the supernatural only to realise that the killer ghost is acting to a plan under the control of a human mystery villain straight out of Terence Fisher's Hammer film version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959).

In the end, however, Sleepy Hollow is a Tim Burton movie. Taken on after the commercial rejection of Mars Attacks! (1996) and the collapse of his long-developed Superman project, material that was already well formed has been thoroughly worked over into something unmistakably the director's own. Depp's Ichabod is his third role for Burton after Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood in 1990 and 1994, and his third go as the director's alter ego, again Struwwelpeter-haired and laced into a tight black jacket that makes him scuttle rather than walk. Burton's curious ability to rethink anything from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985) through Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) to The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) as an experiment in expressionist autobiography is yet again in evidence. Ichabod's dreams of his mother (Burton regular Lisa Marie) hauled off to the torture chamber allow the director the Ed Woodian opportunity to regenerate moments from favourite films - conflating scenes with cult actress Barbara Steele from Mario Bava's The Mask of Satan (1960) and Roger Corman's Pit and the Pendulum (1961) - while imbuing them with an emotional resonance that is as rich and strange as Kenneth Anger's appropriation of drive-in imagery for his own magickal purposes.

Brom Van Brunt (Caspar Van Dien) is the latest in a line of bested bullies (Anthony Michael Hall in Edward Scissorhands, Jack Black in Mars Attacks!) Burton has enjoyed gruesomely killing off. It is a key to Burton's universe that only the truly terrified and alone, like Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne in Batman or Winona Ryder's goth chick in Beetle Juice (1988), can face up to the monsters and earn the reward of romantic fulfilment. Christina Ricci's Katrina, more than answering to Irving's description ("a blooming lass of fresh eighteen, plump as a partridge, ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father's peaches"), is as devoted to her strange beau (unlike Irving's shallow coquette) as Jack Skellington's sewn-together girlfriend in The Nightmare Before Christmas or Ed Wood's succession of supportive helpmates. Ricci seems a natural inhabitant of Burton's world, her broad, child-woman face blank in adoration of her deeply embarrassed swain, credibly witchlike, chaste but not asexual, clearly willing to step into madness if that's what it takes to join the man she loves.

Though the addition of a genuine supernatural creature - wonderfully played, in his headed form, by a wordless Christopher Walken with teeth filed to cannibal points and a Sid Vicious hairdo - is the most striking divergence from the original story, Burton's real rebellion lies in seeing Ichabod Crane not as an awkward weirdo but as an identification figure. As in his earlier freak roles Depp remains a handsome man got up to simulate grotesquery and is never allowed to be the scarecrow geek Goldblum was ideally suited to, most faithfully translated from page to screen in the cartoon version. Given to fainting spells, several times squirted in the eye by jets of blood and thoroughly screwed up by his upbringing, Depp's Crane is a marginalised hero, but a hero nevertheless. Brom is an idiot who blunders pointlessly to his death without helping anyone, but Crane defines that type of courage which involves being genuinely terrified throughout a hideous experience but still getting the job done.

Rarely can a major studio horror film have been the product of so many people who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about horror as a genre, who take such delight in revisiting the by-ways of its history. There's a real frisson to be had from the cameo casting of the likes of Christopher Lee and Michael Gough, whose genre history goes back to their co-starring roles in Fisher's Dracula (1958), though the script gives more weight to such occasional visitors to the genre as Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon and Richard Griffiths, while finding significant moments for Burton regulars Jeffrey Jones and Martin Landau (decapitated before the credits). The woods through which this Horseman rides look exactly like those stretches of the New Forest Hammer liked to pass off as Transylvania, though there's a tangled CGI hell-tree that evokes Oz and The Company of Wolves (1984), and the finale takes place in a burning windmill which is ostensibly a faithful recreation of a set from James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) - already homaged as a miniature golf course in Burton's short Frankenweenie (1984) - though it might also be a nod towards the more highly coloured locale of Fisher's The Brides of Dracula (1960). It's fairly easy to cast a familiar face or drop in a plot reference to a Hammer film, but this is a movie that knows exactly the colour palette of Arthur Grant's cinematography for Hammer or Floyd Crosby's for Corman and works hard to get the mist swirling in the right direction and the precise shade of red for a startling door in an all-white dream church.

Despite Burton's fondness for character comedy and the prevailing Hollywood notion that nobody could possibly take horror seriously, the pleasures of Sleepy Hollow come from high style rather than high camp: a scarecrow (another American horror icon, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to the Batman villain) which whirls whenever the monster brushes; an animated tendril of ghostly mist snuffing out a row of burning torches before the spectre comes for its next victim; the Hessian motioning two angelic little girls not to give away his hiding place, only to have one calculatedly snap a twig to summon the mob who hack off his head; Richard Griffiths' head spinning on his neck after the fatal slice then tumbling to the ground between Depp's legs to be speared and carried off by the Horseman with a circus-style flourish; the Horseman finally regaining his skull and reattaching it to be covered by sinew and skin in a reversal of the usual monster-movie ending that allows for a wild display of Evil Dead-ish effects; the bustle of a 1799 New York street scene in which we see the outlines of the city to come.

Given the nature of the monster's favoured mode of transport, this is a film that has to keep on the move, with thundering hooves and careening carriages. And despite its sometimes mechanical and often broken-down storyline Sleepy Hollow is never less than ravishing to look at - courtesy of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Rick Heinrichs, though Burton's eye is evident in every composition - and manages, when it gets its speed up, to come across as terribly exciting.

What it isn't, and this may be a failing of Irving's conception, is very frightening. Heads are lopped off regularly (the inevitable poster line is "Heads will roll") and human corruption is everywhere. But Ichabod Crane is terrified for intellectual and psychological reasons we can't really share and Burton has his hero overcome all his fears so he can come up trumps in the extended finale, which combines chase, deduction, confrontation and revelation into one big ball of plot string.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012