(Tim Burton / USA, Germany / 1999)
Sleepy Hollow. I saw the film for the first time when it came out in 1999. Being a huge fan of Tim Burton at that time, I was somewhat disappointed by this rather predictable endeavour which seemed to lack the imagination I was used from most of his previous films. Subsequently I saw it three more times at the cinema, after which I became a firm believer in the films qualities. Dont know what exactly made me change my mind, but having seen the film some eight times since then, I saw my opinion confirmed with each viewing. But how can one judge a film objectively which one has seen so many times that it has already become a firm part of the collective memory of cinematic experiences. Maybe one could argue that knowing every scenes content in hindsight can help focusing on the technical qualities.
While watching the prologue of Sleepy Hollow, I couldnt help being reminded of Terrence Malicks marvelous The New World, which I had watched again shortly before revisiting Tim Burtons fairytale. I tried to find a logical explanation for this, but didnt succeed in identifying the obvious. When the titles finally came up, the parallel I had subconsciously established, stepped onto firm ground. Cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki, who had previously added his artistic vision to numerous brazilian movies, was responsible for the cinematography in both films, for which he was respectively nominated for an Academy Award. With his use of light and shadows he complements the art-direction (which won an Academy Award) perfectly, and because it seems he is always using a filter the colors begin to play an integral part of the film. Along with the fitting costume design (also Oscar-nominated) the atmosphere created has an artistic quality all of its own, making the set appear in an artificiality which is reminiscent of the mood in Hammers horror productions from the 60s and 70s. A world that is seemingly enclosed, somewhat cut off, not only by the omnipresent fog surrounding the village but also through the use of computer generated images, from a filmhistory it keeps constantly referencing. One could try to point out all the scenes from which Burton has gotten some inspiration (or which he has simply copied), but it was proved more rewarding at least for me to focus on his presentation of the plot and the characters. In a remarkable cast, the two elements that stood out most negatively where interestingly the two leads, Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, precisely in the moments when they appeared on-screen together. Somehow their emotional scenes felt overtly rushed and little developed, when Burton took sufficient time in seemingly less important moments, while even showing some subtlety in his deployment of comical material. While keeping an extremely tight pace, reminiscent of the classic Hollywood films from the 40s like Raoul Walshs They Drive by Night, the absurdity of many scenes isnt simply added as comical relieve, but is itself an integral part in the films conception. The interplay between (absurd) comedy and scenes of pure horror, blurrs the lines of both to an extent where both become interchangable. When Christopher Walken is seen for the first time on screen, he is introduced as a bloodthirsty madman, in a close-up of his face where he is shown bareing his filed off teeth in slow motion. If one should cry out in horror or burst out laughing is up to the viewer.
Nevertheless the above-mentioned technical elements all add up to save a run-of-the-mill story from its mediocrity and to transform the movie into a visual experience. They more than make up for some scenes where Hollywood Wunderkind Tim Burton has apparently been taking a nap, while we are again witnesses to the fact that conventional storytelling clearly isnt Burtons strength. After being forced into such a corset once more with his next film Planet of the Apes (2001) which many regard as his biggest failure he was finally able to prove his immense capabilities with a subject more suited to his needs, the wonderful Big Fish from 2003. Hopefully Burton wont have to waste his talents in other big-budget productions in the future, in order to conform to the expectatons of major studios which he had raised through the financial succes of Batman in 1989. Thus it is probably a good thing that he didnt direct this years Superman movie, through which he could have been once more forced into a position he himself had never wanted to occupy.
Grade: B ( 73 out of 100)