4 out of 5 stars

The origin of this film is obviously Washington Irving’s 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but this particular adaptation started life as an idea make-up maestro Kevin Yagher had after he started directing episodes of Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996). Yagher developed his concept further with then-unknown screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, a few years before his own breakthrough with the spec script for Se7en (1995), turning the character of Ichabod Crane from a school teacher to an avant-garde detective.

Yagher’s directorial career floundered in the 1990s, especially when he removed his name from the debacle of Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), and so Paramount demoted him to prosthetic make-up and instead hired Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands), whose Superman Lives project had recently shut down development. Originally pitched as a low-budget slasher by Yagher, Burton instead saw Sleepy Hollow as an opportunity to make a lavish film that homaged the Hammer horror films he loved as a child, so was soon hard at work recruiting many of his frequent collaborators to work on it with a budget of $70M.

Sleepy Hollow is less of an adaptation of the source material and more of a Gothic murder-mystery that utilises the tale’s iconic elements. Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is now a big city constable with cutting-edge ideas about forensics his elders don’t understand, who’s sent away to the upstate hamlet of Sleepy Hollow (by a cameoing Christopher Lee) to investigate a series of brutal murders. Crane duly arrives and sets about trying to apply his rational mind to the investigation, aware the superstitious locals believe the culprit is a Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken) — the spirit of a fearsome Hessian mercenary, perhaps returned from beyond the grave to avenge the descendants of those who lopped his head off.

The undeniable strength of this movie is the Academy Award-winning art direction, the astonishingly beautiful sets by Rick Heinrichs, and the excellent cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Great Expectations). This may be the best-looking Tim Burton movie he’s ever made; if only because it’s less cartoonish than fans would have expected from him at the time, as his penchant for black-and-white spirals and warped architecture is replaced by something more classical and desaturated.

Burton clearly loves 1950s and 1960s Hammer horror films, in particular, as Sleepy Hollow is exactly what one would imagine that famous British studio producing if they’d still been at full strength in the 1990s. It helps that the cast is filled with famous English character actors, too —- like Michael Gambon (as town leader Baltus), Ian McDiarmid (as Dr Lancaster), Richard Griffiths (Magistrate Philipse), and Miranda Richardson (as Lady Van Tassel). A few cast members even had direct ties to Hammer’s heyday, like Michael Gough (Alfred in Burton’s Batman), who had long ago appeared in Dracula (1958) alongside the aforementioned Christopher Lee.

This is an American literary classic, however, so while it’s full of Dutch-American settlers with English accents, Burton ensures there’s local talent in prominent roles — like Christina Ricci (The Addams Family) as tender love interest Katrina Van Tassel, and his muse Johnny Depp. The latter had wanted to portray Crane as described by Irving, with a long nose, large ears, and spindly fingers, but Paramount insisted he look as handsome as possible. Depp thus plays the role in the manner of a sexy and effete Sherlock Holmes, which is appealing enough, although leaning into the comedic aspects of this Crane chips away at Sleepy Hollow’s otherwise serious intentions to provide a dark and moody horror. For all of his charm, Depp doesn’t get a firm grip on the role beyond Ichabod’s affectations — be they physical, like his use of quirky spectacles and homemade gadgets, or emotional, like his timidity and tendency to faint.

Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay may upset purists because of its many deviations from Irving’s prose, but it’s an effective story in its own right and the mystery at its heart should keep people guessing. It’s a Scooby-Doo plot deep down, complete with a monologuing villain explaining everything in the third act, but it’s effectively put together and there’s always a thrilling sequence with the Horseman just around the corner to enliven things. Burton admits he’s not the best action or horror director, but he crafts some exciting horse chases and the sound design delivers a chair-gripping feel as Danny Elfman’s fantastic score swirls around you. The late-’90s was a golden age for blockbuster filmmaking, in how so much was still being done practically but VFX could achieve realistic images like phantom horses exploding out of bleeding tree trunks or people’s heads being cut off in camera.

If nothing else, Sleepy Hollow works on a cinematic level to bring audiences into the world of this remote 18th-century town, as it has a compelling mix of plausibility and heightened artistry. The wide landscapes are like moving paintings, and the intricate designs of the buildings and forests are a perfect mix of ordinary and extraordinary. The production actually shot in the UK after failing to find a suitable location in the US where the story takes place! They mostly filmed scenes on sound stages at Leavesden and Shepperton, but also in the small village of Hambledon, Buckinghamshire, where Burton’s team from Batman constructed Sleepy Hollow from scratch for $1.3M over four months. It’s a shame they dismantled it.

Francis Ford Coppola was a hands-off producer on the film (a fact Burton didn’t even realise until he saw his name on the trailer’s credits), so in some ways Sleepy Hollow can be seen as the unofficial end of a trilogy of classic horror updates Coppola was involved with — following his own Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), and producing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). The key difference is that Sleepy Hollow has no interest in being as faithful to the source material as possible, as the key creatives just embraced the spooky concept of a headless horseman galloping around scaring villagers.

Ultimately, Sleepy Hollow is a technical success and a sumptuous piece of filmmaking by Tim Burton, working from a solid screenplay that contains plenty of imaginative moments and supernatural freakiness. The downside is Depp misjudges the tone of the piece to some extent, so the hero is more a collection of tics and formal line readings than a fleshed-out character we’re truly in thrall of. But if your attention begins to wander in the second act, it’s impossible to become outright bored by Sleepy Hollow, and the visual spectacle and roll-call of English actors is more than enough to keep you watching.

It’s just a shame Burton’s odder sensibilities as a filmmaker don’t outshine the production design more often, as they do during the creepy flashbacks to Ichabod’s childhood with his tragic mother (Burton’s then-wife Lisa Marie). 

USA • GERMANY • UK | 1999 | 105 MINUTES | 1:85.1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • LATIN

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4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Special Features: 

Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow finally arrives on 2160p 4K Ultra HD, including a Limited Edition Steelbook that contains Washington Irving’s story as a booklet built into the case. The picture quality is marvellous, especially because the HDR10 (or Dolby Vision) helps bring the darker scenes to life like never before, as this is certainly a movie where the greater dynamic range between light and dark helps scenes pop.

It’s a shame the 4K update of the movie didn’t extend to the soundtrack, which is the same DTS-HD Mater Audio 5.1 mix we’ve already experienced on the last Blu-ray release. (Early marketing suggested we’d be treated to a next-gen update.) It’s certainly not a bad aural experience, with plenty of oomph to the action sequences, but one can imagine a new Atmos track would have been a welcome improvement to give certain moments greater impact and a sense of presence in the room. A missed opportunity.

The bonus material contained on the second Blu-ray disc contains:

  • Commentary by director Tim Burton.
  • Sleepy Hollow — Behind the Legend.
  • Reflections on Sleepy Hollow.
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Cast & Crew

director: Tim Burton.
writer: Andrew Kevin Walker (story by Kevin Yagher & Andrew Kevin Walker).
starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien & Jeffrey Jones.