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Meta-daptations: Sleepy Hollow

July 20, 2009

Okay, let’s do this:

Movie: Sleepy Hollow

Book: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Tim Burton pornography.

We’ll get to that in a moment, but first this: How this movie works, I have no idea; it is the most utterly and totally absolutely dead-on self-indulgent piece of cinema since Juliet of the Spirits—though Sleepy Hollow is good.

Perhaps because it has everything we’ve come to expect from Tim Burton: blood, shadows, Johnny Depp, the grotesque, the ghoulish, Alfred the Butler, huge, flailing boobies, the outsider protagonist, and death, death, death.

It also has a flagrantly dense cast; let’s see the connections: Johnny Depp and Alfred, one-and-a-half Draculas—Christopher Lee and Martin Landau (and Landau was in Hitchcock’s finest Bond movie); bridge the gap from Star Wars with the Emperor and Darth Maul (and Christopher Lee again) to Harry Potter with Dumbledore and Harry’s uncle …and did you know Chris Walken was under consideration to play Han Solo? (Ahh, I could do this all day…)

But back to the Tim Burton pornography thing: When he was a bright-eyed little tyke, Tim Burton read Washington Irving’s short story (yes, technically it’s a short story from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.) – or more likely saw the Disney animated film (Ichabod…Ichabod…Headless Horseman…Headless Horseman…)– and he never got the image of the Headless Horseman out of his mind.

Fast forward 30-some years: Burton’s an established director with a wholly cow blockbuster , a critical darling, and a not-directed pet project under his belt. What else is left to do but go back to where it all began?

So he does.

Narratively speaking, Sleepy Hollow has nothing in common with Irving’s story save the names and the Ichabod-Katrina-Brom Bones triangle (which is resolved with delightful messiness [and did anyone else notice that it’s a reversal of the story’s outcome?]). But it doesn’t need to; Burton’s out to recapture a feeling—what he felt reading (or watching) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and then he wants to show us how that feeling influenced him. Case in point: The trailer (or at least the one I saw) opens on Little Urchin Boy (possibly the girl on loan from 1955’s Night of the Hunter) lighting up Grotesque Ghoulish Latern. An array of strange and terrible creatures parade about the cabin’s walls as the LUB smiles gleely.

And then the Headless Horseman shows up and slaughters the boy’s parents…and in a moment of beautiful irony, the Horseman realizes he forgot the boy and makes a motion implying a head-smack, that is, if he had a head.

And I can’t help but think that the Little Urchin Boy is Burton’s surrogate (after all, what kind of wretched child would enjoy that Grotesque Ghoulish Lantern?) or Burton looking back on his childhood obsession with the macabre and then saying, “And look where it’s gotten me? Am I not so much more dreadful? Tee hee!”

But what about that feeling Burton’s trying to recapture? And what does that have to do with Burton splatter-porn?

Turns out what Burton felt reading/watching TLOSH was sexual gratification, because in this movie sex and blood/pain/death are pretty much indistinguishable. The scene where Jeffrey Jones and Miranda Richardson ravish/wound each other bashes that theme over the viewer’s head. How about when the furious cleavage we call Lisa Marie comes (sorry) flying out of the iron maiden? Or the endless times Johnny Depp gets blood spurted across his face? (And we’ll just leave that one at that.)

And does anyone remember how violent this movie is? Decapitations happen onscreen in a single, unbroken shot. There are a lot of movies that come up right to the brink of gore and then pull the camera away at the last second. People say those movies are violent, but I can’t remember the last time someone referred to Sleepy Hollow as such—but there’s an explicit amount of gore. And I say “explicit” because, well, sex and death are interchangeable and the latter will get you an NC-17 rating.

But, again, what’s really amazing about Sleepy Hollow is that it works. This is far and away the most self-indulgent film I can think of (Juliet of the Spirits comes close…and I hesitate to bring the name Michael Bay into play…), the good thing is that, well, that’s what we want. The only thing missing is a creepy claymation sequence a la (shudder) Large Marge—and if you’ve seen this movie, you know exactly where it’d be.

Burton’s films have always been a little unpolished; revisiting Beetlejuice last fall, I was struck with how erratic the direction was; Edward Scissorhands is much the same way. You see a bit of that in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but it’s tighter. His two Batman films are actually superb (Returns, revisited earlier this year, is not as bad as you remember) and are the culmination of his outsider protagonist (the best thing he did was cast Keaton as Batman and then make the villains the focus).

Ed Wood is in a class by itself. Nightmare almost reaches that height, and Sweeney Todd’s not far behind, but Ed Wood is hands-down his best film, because it’s when Burton finally stopped clowning around and showed some real heart (which, thinking about it now, is why I don’t get much from Scissorhands).

And if I may indulge in a bit of self-indulgence, this flick holds a very special place in my heart because it fulfilled and surpassed every expectation.

The traditions in our family revolve almost totally around movies. It’s not Christmas until we watch Stan and Ollie in Babes in Toyland, taped sometime during the Ford administration, on Betamax (Oh no….Beta!), because there’s promos for The Bionic Woman; in the same vein, it’s not the 23rd of December until we watch Hallmark’s 1984 gem w/ George C. Scott in A Christmas Carol—the best (screw yourself Alistair Simms!) adaptation. And Sara steadfastly insists we watch the Beta-tape because that’s the one with the old IBM commercials featuring the Charlie-Chaplin impersonator.

Well, that’s Christmas, and that snotty brat takes a backseat to Hallowe’en in this Almirall’s family.

And it’s not Hallowe’en until we watch The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The Disney cartoon. All four of us—Mom, Dad, Sara, myself, know it by heart, and I can remember long hours at the dinner table spent with Dad debating whether it was Brom Bones who was the headless horseman (of course he wasn’t—but please, don’t tell Dad I said that) If we could but journey back…

In 1999(!) there was a documentary(slash)behind-the-scenes promo of Sleepy Hollow playing on Cable (well, satellite: One of Mom and Dad’s few technological indulgences besides the DVD player…which got Dad into Akira Kurosawa’s works…but that’s a post in itself…) and Sara and I were vamped/psyched to see it; it was opening that weekend in Midland, and I said to Sara “Let’s go see it—tonight,” and she said, “No—we need to see it with Mum & Pup.” And she was absolutely right.

And so we saw it—and it was everything we wanted: Burton and Almirall’s fantasies were in total alignment. Dad doesn’t like many movies, but all four of us loved the fuck out of this movie, and, discussing it with Sara (and hence spurring her most recent [and finest {at least I believe} post]) makes me realize that our family was in sync over this flick.

It’s largely the reason I’m doing this.

Frothygirlz rating 8/10


3 Responses to “ Meta-daptations: Sleepy Hollow ”

  1. pancake on July 20, 2009 at 8:57 am

    I watch this movie every Fall in preparation for the greatest holiday ever, Halloween. One of the reasons I love it so? Why my fondness for the Disney animated version of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, of course! Guess what else? I remember watching it every time we visited Higgins (your family copy, I believe). Your post was dead on, I loved it!

  2. anncine on July 20, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    I love this post. I have very fond memories of watching Legend of Sleepy Hollow with dad…*sigh* We must go back to Higgins!

  3. Sara on July 27, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    There are few animated moments in life I adore so much as the almost Tim Burton-esc crazed gaze of Ichabod Crane as he picks, holds, & pounds the offending pussy willows upon his head after realizing they were making the hoof noises of an approaching Headless Horseman.
    (Picks, holds, & pounds offending pussy willows…heh heh, there’s a post for ye.)