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Sleepy Hollow (1999)

by Steve Habrat

After the magic that was captured in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands and 1994’s Ed Wood, the bar was set mighty high for the third collaboration between auteur Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp. This third collaboration happened to be a big screen interpretation of Sleepy Hollow, a bulked up and bloodied version of Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that was first published in 1820. Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is a foggy, gothic vision that has faint echoes of a classic Universal Studios monster movie and a squeamish version of Ichabod Crane slinking away from the dreaded Headless Horseman. Working with a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, Burton’s Sleepy Hollow becomes a slightly convoluted but beautifully photographed thriller that lacks any substantial freak-outs. Sleepy Hollow ends up being rescued by Depp’s portrayal of Ichabod Crane, who in Burton’s film is a nebbish but practical New York City police constable rather than a skittish and superstitious schoolmaster like he was in Irving’s story. Depp adds some real pizzazz to a film that is all visual panache and very little humanity.

Sleepy Hollow finds queasy New York City police constable Ichabod Crane (Played by Johnny Depp) sent by his superiors to investigate a handful of gruesome murders in the isolated and superstitious town of Sleepy Hollow. Upon his arrival, Crane meets with a slew of locals who are taken aback by his new and experimental techniques that he plans to apply to catching what he assumes is a flesh and blood murderer. The nervous townspeople whisper tales of a headless apparition rising from the grave and riding through the night to severe the heads of anyone who gets in his path. As the investigation continues, Crane begins to realize that maybe the ghost stories that are on everyone’s lips may not be just stories afterall. Crane teams up with a local orphan Young Masbath (Played by Marc Pickering) and the pretty Katrina Van Tassel (Played by Christina Ricci), daughter of wealthy local farmer and head of Sleepy Hollow Baltus Van Tassel (Played by Michael Gambon). The trio begins to suspect that maybe the murders that are taking place are not as random as they first appeared to be.

Sleepy Hollow is loaded with brittle and foggy detailed sets that seem like they would have been at home in the Universal Studios monster movies of years past. The film also has some pedantic costume design that really adds to the visual punch. The set and costume design are complimented by the moody chiaroscuro cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, which at times borders on black and white, further fueling the classic horror movie feel of the film. Burton seamlessly edits sequences that had to have been shot on jaw-dropping sets with actual landscapes, creating a dead and gothic landscape, one of the most vivid of his entire career. This gorgeous detail is what allows Sleepy Hollow to keep its head above water rather than sinking due to the overly complicated storyline that Burton slowly and inconsistently reveals. Sleepy Hollow almost falls victim to style over substance but luckily Johnny Depp is willing to come to the rescue.

Depp single handedly gives Sleepy Hollow the soul that it so desperately needs. Depp’s Crane is a peculiar individual, the furthest thing from a manly man and one enamored with science. He cringes at the bloody crime scenes and gasps at the site of a spider but he enjoys slapping on a bizarre pair of goggles to play detective. Depp’s Crane can be viewed as an outsider throughout Sleepy Hollow, a man who wishes to make a change in police work but is consistently waved off by his superiors and finds the residents of Sleepy Hollow cocking their heads and squinting their faces when he goes off on a tirade. While Depp soars, many of the background players fall flat. His leading lady Christina Ricci isn’t given anything to do but gasp and faint every time she lays eyes on the Horseman. Miranda Richardson as Lady Van Tassel really gets to let loose at the end but some of the dialogue she is given is iffy. Christopher Walken as the Horseman is an inspired choice for the role but when we see his back-story and all he does is grunt, much of your excitement over his presence deflates. Supporting roles are filled by familiar Burton actors like Lisa Marie, Michael Gough, and Jeffrey Jones who are there simply because they know Burton and they probably owed him a favor. Ian McDiarmid and Christopher Lee also pop up in small roles but they are rarely seen and seem to be there simply to add more star power to the credits.

By the end of the film, Burton’s vision falls victim to a clunky script that ends in a rush of confusing explanations about what has been going on beneath all the supernatural carnage. Sleepy Hollow does however end with a very cool nod to James Whale’s Frankenstein despite the fact that it is as subtle as an exploding windmill. While there are some adjustments made to help the film expand into a feature length film, the storyline isn’t properly balanced out and it attempts to cram too much into the last fifteen minutes. Considering this is Sleepy Hollow and is a classic story around Halloween, the film could have benefitted from a few solid scares here and there. There are tense moments but there is nothing that will have you covering your eyes and sleeping with a nightlight on. This film does happen to be one of the bloodiest films that Burton has ever made, boasting some truly amazing gore effects that spew candle wax-like blood. Overall, Burton is the only director I can see tackling a project like Sleepy Hollow and he does do a damn fine job visually, offering up moments of staggering beauty. Depp is his usual top notch self but Burton ends up leaning on him to heavily to carry all the extra weight in the film. Despite its flaws, there is still a moderate amount of moody and atmospheric fun to be had in Sleepy Hollow, allowing it to be an above average film, but I wish this had been about a little more than just mood and atmospherics.

Grade: B

Sleepy Hollow is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Ed Wood (1994)

by Steve Habrat

Next to Edward Scissorhands, the other must-see collaboration between gothic auteur Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp is their 1994 film Ed Wood, which follows the career of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the man considered the worst filmmaker of all time. Pushing aside much of his gloomy gothic aesthetic (at times, Burton just can’t resist), Burton makes a comical film shot in black and white to resemble the B-movie sleaze of the 1950’s. A man who sometimes sacrifices story for an image, Burton’s Ed Wood spryly hops along with an always-charming story and equally striking images. Much like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood is about a misunderstood artist who also happens to be an eccentric misfit who enjoys cross-dressing and paling around with a ragtag film family who sticks by through all of Ed’s ups and downs. Yet just like the character of Edward Scissorhands, Ed also works his way onto our charm list and ends up carving out his own little place in our heart.

Ed Wood introduces us to failing theater director Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Played by Johnny Depp), who is waiting for the press to show up to his World War II play The Casual Company. After receiving a scathing review with only one compliment, Wood complains that his hero Orson Welles was twenty-six when he made Citizen Kane and he is nearing thirty and has nothing he can be proud of. After a number of attempts to snag a project that he can direct, he snags a job directing a bio-pic about sex-change personality Christine Jorgensen. Wood wrestles with the head of the small studio that is producing the film and out of their negations, Wood ends up making his first film Glen or Glenda, which costars his current girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Played by Sarah Jessica Parker) and addresses the subject of crossing dressing, which Wood himself often partakes in. Around this time, Wood also meets washed up horror movie star Bela Lugosi (Played by Martin Landau) who quickly becomes a close friend of Ed’s. After Wood discovers that Lugosi is broke and suffering from a crippling drug addiction, Wood sets out to find projects for Lugosi and to aid him in kicking his habit. Wood ends up directing many of these projects, which are met with negative reviews and angry crowds. As Wood’s career hits more lows than highs, the people around him are faced with sticking by him or moving on.

It won’t be hard for you to sympathize with Depp’s Wood, who is always laughed at by people who don’t understand him or watching his vision get crushed on right in front of him. Despite his optimistic surface (he finds the one compliment in a scathing review and clings to it), down below there is doubt and self-consciousness. He is constantly and painfully forced to reveal that he enjoys cross-dressing even though it is hard for him to discuss out loud. He hides this from Dolores who obviously fakes her understanding and acceptance of this. A scene during a wrap party in which Wood gets all dressed up in lingerie and dances for the crew shows Wood at one of his happiest moments until Dolores erupts in disgust over the spectacle. The scenes in which the studio heads and producers laugh at his films are the ones that will really leave a welt on your emotions. The film shows us the growth within Wood, the growth that gives him the confidence to battle for his vision and to make the art that he wants to make. Granted, it may not be the best product but his genuine enthusiasm over his work is what really allows us to root for him.

The other misfit of Ed Wood is Landau’s Bela Lugosi, who is all but forgotten by the Hollywood system, most people under the impression that he died. Broke and hiding a nasty drug habit, Lugosi still clings to his glory days when he was a major star in Universal horror pictures. The relationship that Lugosi forms with Wood is touching, neither one really bothered by the other’s lifestyle. When Lugosi’s drug habit really begins to plague him, Wood stands by with heavy eyes and loyally plants by his idol’s side. Landau, who snagged an Oscar for his role as Lugosi, is a ball of emotions himself. At times, he can be wickedly funny, especially in scenes where he discusses the curvy Vampira (Played by Lisa Marie), who joins Wood’s crew later in his career. Then there are moments where he is just a tragic as Wood, collapsing into a heap in a chair on the verge of tears over his unemployment getting cut off. It also pierces the heart when he discusses his disgust over Boris Karloff. Ed Wood really hits its stride whenever Landau steps into frame and interacts with Wood.

The rest of the supporting players in Ed Wood are also an absolute joy. Bill Murray shows up as Wood’s friend and actor Bunny Breckinridge, who is consistently bragging about a sex change he is supposedly getting. To be honest, there just wasn’t enough of Murray for me in the film. The few scenes that we get to see Bunny are absolutely hysterical. Jeffrey Jones shows up as the “psychic” Criswell, another character that we don’t get enough of. Jones gets to introduce the film in the same way that the real Criswell introduced Wood’s film Night of the Ghouls. Patricia Arquette shows up as Wood’s future wife Kathy O’Hara, who faithfully stands by Wood despite constant failure. Lisa Marie is a perfect ten as the curvy horror personality Vampira, who Wood constantly chases and ends up casting her in Plan 9 From Outer Space. There is also a neat cameo by Vincent D’Onofrio who uncannily portrays Orson Welles in one of the strongest sequences of the entire film.

Ed Wood is one of Tim Burton’s coolest films both visually and musically. The film is shot to resemble a 50’s B-movie, which constantly slaps a smile on your face. The film throws in multiple nods to Wood’s body of work and tips its hat to B-movies and Lugosi’s Dracula through the beautiful and quirky score by Howard Shore. Ed Wood turns out to be an affectionate and hilarious story about one man’s love for cinema and his affection for his film family. It’s about sticking together through the best and worst of times and how this camaraderie can affect a person for the better. Ed Wood is still a film that woven with tragedy throughout and these tragic reveals are expertly and unexpectedly delivered, blindsiding us when we least expect it. The film hits a few minor bumps near the end, especially when one character departs the film, but Ed Wood is the Burton film that stuck with me the longest out of all of his offerings. It’s a shame that Ed Wood seems to be the Burton film that flies under the radar. Much like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood is a real treasure of a film, one that wins on multiple levels.

Grade: A

Ed Wood is available on DVD.