Almost everything Tim Burton has done in his career has been influenced by Gothic horror. His influences stretch back from the Hammer era to silent classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While he is known for his signature style, it’s not exactly a new style. Burton is one of those directors who wears his influences on his sleeve and they impact everything, except for maybe Mars Attacks. But while all of his influences come from horror, he’s spent the bulk of his career making family films. It makes sense, then, that Burton’s one and only straight up horror film would be his best, yet in the canon of the director’s work, Sleepy Hollow seems almost forgotten. It was an event when first released, but with all the work Burton’s done since, it has kind of faded into the background. But Sleepy Hollow is far from being just another Tim Burton flick. If anything, it’s the distilled essence of everything a Burton film should be.
With everything he had done before, Burton had been doing all sorts of different projects in the style of a gothic melodrama. Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, even Batman and especially Batman Returns. These were all not quite horror, but he worked in as many influences and references to classic horror material as he could. With Sleepy Hollow, however, Burton actually got the chance to do full-fledged gothic melodrama and did an expectedly great job. As a director, he has never been more in his element than when he did this feature.
Sleepy Hollow is Burton in excess. All the heightened emotions, the gothic, tilted production design and the building, creeping scares…these are all things that he had to hold back to some degree with all of the earlier productions in his career. For the first time, he didn’t have to hold anything back and he reveled in it. It’s even a much gorier movie than I think anyone was expecting it to be, but the early Hammer productions were very gory for their time as well. Horror of Dracula had some of the first bloodshed, as minimal as it was, that most audiences had ever seen on film.
Being an avid fan of those films, Burton also brings in some of those familiar faces. Both Christopher Lee and Michael Gough, who had worked together in Horror of Dracula and had both appeared in numerous projects have roles here. Gough had previously worked with Burton on the Batman films and Lee would continue to work with Burton until his death, but these were more than actors like Johnny Depp, who just show up in everything he does. These were Burton’s favorite actors dating back to childhood and he went after them because he believed they were the best at what they did. That’s not to say that Depp doesn’t give a great performance, as does Christina Ricci, who truly should have been a Burton leading lady.
There are significant changes from the original short story by Washington Irving, made by writer Andrew Kevin Walker, who had previously scripted Seven. These changes are what a lot of horror fans have used to write off Sleepy Hollow as a bad adaptation. But the original story could not be sustained as a feature film and the gothic procedural element that Burton and Walker brought to the project is extremely entertaining and works very well. It’s probably the best change that could have been made to restructure the original story as a fast-paced, yet brooding and morbid movie.
There’s a sense of harshness to Sleepy Hollow that is missing from Burton’s work, but it’s not necessarily mean. Instead, there’s an element of glee to it. This is a vivid and imaginative filmmaker, unrestrained for the first and probably only time in his career. That’s what makes Sleepy Hollow stand out. In some ways, it could be seen as Burton’s most pure movie.
Tim Burton and horror were made for each other. There’s a somewhat hilarious story that Burton and Johnny Depp were sitting down to lunch and Burton mentioned that this project had come up and had been sent his way. Depp pointed out that Tim had never made a horror film before, to which Burton was actually surprised. He said that, because all of his influences had been based in the genre, he had simply assumed that he already had a horror feature under his belt.
If Burton never directs another horror movie, and I think it’s very likely that he won’t, it only makes Sleepy Hollow that much more special. It’s Burton’s most wholehearted endeavor. He put everything into this, all of his passion and all of those things that had made him want to be a filmmaker in the first place. It’s a shame, truly, that the elements which made Sleepy Hollow a success did not influence his other work. If anything, it was the opposite.
After the release of Sleepy Hollow, executives saw just what he could do without the supervision that had been provided on his earlier family films. If anything, his work was twice as watered down after his run-in with the Headless Horseman than it had been before, with the notable exception of Sweeney Todd. It’s a shame. But really, as much as Burton loves the gothic atmosphere and style, he said everything he had to say with Sleepy Hollow. And there’s probably a reason for the fact that now fans seem to groan when he goes back to that same well to produce a movie like Dark Shadows, which would have been tailor-made for a pre-Sleepy Hollow Tim Burton.
Still, despite some obviously dated effects, Sleepy Hollow showcases a filmmaker at the top of his game. For that reason alone, it’s a shame it does not have more of an audience. It did, at first, but those people who saw it in the theater back in 1999 quickly seemed to forget about it and move on. It’s built a new following since then, but many Burton fans shun it for its outright horror and it rarely if ever makes it onto lists of the director’s best movies.
And while it might not be the pitch-perfect biopic that is Ed Wood, it is a director entrenched inside of himself, making better use of his own influences and his own style than he ever had before and likely ever will again.