Monday, January 7, 2013

RUTZ Classic Movies: "Sleepy Hollow"

Directed by Tim Burton    

Line that stays with me: “Taken. Taken by the Headless Horseman. Taken back to hell. ”

“Sleepy Hollow” is Tim Burton’s comeback movie. It might be hard to understand that unless you were following his career closely in the 90’s like I was. He was definitely more productive in the 2000’s, even though sometimes with the wrong projects like “Plant of the Apes”. Before “Sleepy Hollow” he made “Mars Attack”,  a good and fun film that bombed at the box office. Before that film he made “Ed Wood”, a great special film, that bombed at the box office and he also producer slapped his name on tepid films like “Cabin Boy” and “James and the Giant Peach”. Plus he almost made the disaster to be “Superman Lives” with Nicholas Cage as Superman. By 1999 I was dying for a real Tim Burton movie. Love him or hate him he has defined an amazing style with great collaborators like Danny Elfman. He has a style that thrives on classic horror themes, ghosts, shadows, fog, and digging for the unknown. So much of his style derives from the horror genre, and yet “Sleepy Hollow” is the only horror film Tim Burton has made. I truly feel that after all those misfires Tim Burton wanted to do something that he knew he could kill. “Sleepy Hollow” is the Tim Burton upgrade movie and it was rated R, which meant no mercy. Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” has the intensity of an artist saying “No one could do this better than me”. (and more than a decade later, when it comes to dark, spooky, fantastical mainstream entertainment, no one has.)

One of the only drawbacks of watching “Sleepy Hollow” is that you end up asking yourself why aren’t more blockbusters this good? Why don’t more blockbuster films have this much character and innovative cinematic fun? I don’t call anything perfect but “Sleepy Hollow” if rated on it’s intentions is damn near close. This is a film product that cost 100 million dollars to make. That means a lot of hands in the pot but somehow Tim Burton has managed to deliver the goods anyway, not an easy feat to pull off. I remember when I went to watch “Sleepy Hollow” for the first time I was expecting the film to be visually perfect and it was but what surprised me upon first viewing was how funny the movie is. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised since Tim Burton did direct “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” (one of my favorite comedies) and “Beetlejuice”. “Sleepy Hollow” has great dark comedy moments and Johnny Depp’s hilarious performance (which was inspired by Angela Lansbury’s performance from “Death of the Nile” of all things) anchors the film. The original Tim Burton -  Johnny Depp Trilogy: “Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Sleepy Hollow” is an astounding collection of two artists who needed each other. “Sleepy Hollow” was the winner’s circle, the celebration of the two prior projects and Johnny Depp just looks so focused in this film. Whether he’s making us laugh by cowardly using Young Masbath as a human shield or acting all loony after his first encounter with the headless horsemen, it is so much fun to watch a great actor lost in the moment. It helps the audience get lost too.

As a filmmaker after I watch a great film I usually end up in a frenzy trying to figure out its formula. I find out who wrote it, who produced it, how did this great film come to be? A search done with pure admiration with hopes of learning something that can help me in my journey. “Sleepy Hollow” was written by Andrew Kevin Walker who also wrote “Seven”. There were some rewrites by another writer and Tim Burton but the credit goes to Andrew Kevin Walker. At the end of the day I believe a screenplay is either the beginning of greatness or instructions on how to make something that wasn’t that good to begin with. It is classic film math, a mediocre director with a great script can make a good movie. (think Ben Affleck, Paul Haggis, and Kathryn Bigelow) A great director with a bad script is going to make a mediocre film if we’re lucky. (unfortunate samples: Prometheus, Jack, Jurassic Park: The Lost World) “Sleepy Hollow” is the best case scenario. Right from the beginning the film hooks us with mystery and intrigue, as we watch Martin Landau get his head chopped off. As a writer I love when a movie begins with a strong catalyst that allows interesting questions. Thus “Sleepy Hollow” begins with this question: “What did Martin Landau do to get his head chopped off?” A great question that leads the audience to the introduction of Ichabod Crane, who will by the end of the film answer that question for us. That is thought out writing and a true skill. The writer also created various interesting characters, and townspeople with their own history who were played by classic Tim Burton character actors like Jeffrey Jones and Michael Gough. Michael Gambon as Baltus Van Tassel is such a sweet pleasure to watch due to the great dialog. On my last viewing that’s what truly impressed like never before the rich dialog that is pitch perfect and still makes me laugh. Michael Gambon saying “Where brave men will not venture” or Richard Griffiths grabbing his talisman in fear saying “It’s the devil’s fire” cracks me up but the words themselves are creating the perfect tone for the film. Great writing in movies is a complex thing, it comes in layers and usually we don’t even notice it. Plus, Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman with a crazy set of teeth goes a long way..           

Tim Burton’s vision is so strong that when you hear a Danny Elfman score in another film, you instantly think of a Tim Burton film or think he directed it. “Sleepy Hollow” is one of the best looking films in the last 20 years. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is proudly majestic with all it’s creepiness, like some beautiful painting of the Grim Reaper. The framing is exceptional and never erratic, camera movements smooth as can be, and lighting techniques that I will always study. When the action gets intense you can always see everything clearly. Emmanuel Lubezki’s work married with Rick Heinrichs and Peter Young’s art direction is truly something worth reviewing to open your mind to the possibilities of what the movies offer artists. They had to create an atmosphere, a village from scratch and design it in a way that will accentuate Tim Burton’s vision. There are so many great sets on this film, the Tree of the Dead set instantly comes to mind, it’s such a beauty that I wish I could peek behind the curtain. Watching the results of all that teamwork inspires and excites me because I know the pleasure of working with a team to create something from nothing. It is a true testament of what makes human beings special, if we put our minds together we can achieve some extraordinary things. Watching “Sleepy Hollow” you can’t help but enjoy the fruits of their labors in every frame because together they achieved excellence. Sometimes I feel I am over praising these fine people but when I watch a movie that was made by lazy people I stand corrected. You know what kind of movies I’m talking about , movies that the sets don’t impress and you get disconnected from the movie because you’re too busy questioning why the film’s look doesn’t match its story. “Sleepy Hollow” taught me that a film’s look must speak to us before the story. “Sleepy Hollow” even begins with a terrific montage with no real dialog uttered. 


A film can make you admire so many things and transport you to another world with it’s story. “Sleepy Hollow” is that kind of movie. It is surely a horror film but one done with prestige and intricate care. The horror sequences are not slow in tempo but fierce and intense. You feel every death in this film. The music roars, lightning strikes and sheep run for cover as they hear the deafening gallop of the Headless Horseman's black steed. It feels like Tim Burton said “Alright, no more Mr. Nice Guy”. Casper Van Dien is ripped half “Mortal Kombat” fatality style. A mother is killed in a terrible manner and we get to watch her baby boy look into her dead eyes. I am sure like me upon first viewing you thought the kid was going to get away but he got the axe too, which is fantastic. Whenever a kid gets killed in a horror movie I instantly think “Anybody can die in this movie now” which increases the suspense for we fear the hero could get axed too. In one of most exhilarating scenes in the film a witch decapitates a bird, not even animals are spared in this film. We see the Tree of the Dead filled with decapitated human heads swimming in blood. Tim Burton must have read this script and licked his chops thirsty to present all that carnage in stunning fashion that he knew he was capable of but never had the chance. I hope he makes another R rated horror film soon. His over-standing of the material and gift to create the sort of atmosphere that comes natural to him makes me watch “Sleepy Hollow” like a wide-eyed wonder right down to the bloody end.

ABOUT RCM: RUTZ Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay:" Steven Soderbergh's The Limey"


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