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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book to Reel: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow


A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere… the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions…

This sounds like an exciting opening, but when I re-visited Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I was surprised to find how dull it actually was. It had been so many years since I had read it that I didn’t realize most of the spookiness I associated with it came from the screen versions. There is only one line of dialogue in the entire story, and while Washington Irving’s sharp wit shines in spots, it moves slowly (which is really saying something, considering it is only a little more than 12,000 words long).

The aura this quote evokes has inspired several screen versions that are superior, at least in scare quality, to the original story. This is one of the rare times that film makers have taken a basic idea from literature and really made it into something special. I have a soft spot for the ‘80s version starring a very young Jeff Goldblum (who really fits Irving’s physical description of Ichabod Crane perfectly) and I enjoy the old Disney cartoon beautifully narrated by Bing Crosby. But I am a lover of all things Tim Burton, and his 1999 entrée is my focus for this Halloween.

When Sleepy Hollow, as Burton’s film is titled, first came out, I was slightly affronted that Ichabod Crane was a police constable instead of a pedagogue, that Bram Van Brunt was a stand-up kind of guy instead of a bully, and that the Headless Horsemen was a henchman for a vengeful stepmother instead of a soldier that lost his head due to a cannon ball. But it is a gorgeous movie with incredible cinematography and lovely special effects. The disparities between the story and the film cease to be an issue in light of the sheer entertainment on the screen. Johnny Depp, Burton’s favorite muse, is delightful. He has several extremely funny moments, most notably when he realizes that the Headless Horseman is real. The shock sends him to bed with fainting spells, which he continues to have throughout the rest of the movie. Christina Ricci is a good foil for his character, and Miranda Richardson plays her villainous role with just the right amount of theatrics. But Christopher Walken steals the show (as he does in everything he appears in--Pulp Fiction, anyone?) as the Hessian solider turned Headless Horseman. I doubt he is onscreen for more than five minutes and he doesn’t utter a single word, yet his performance is compelling and memorable.

The Headless Horseman Walken is portraying is being controlled by a living individual bent on revenge, a captivating storyline, though completely devoid of any basis in the written version. It is actually amusing to watch the film and try to pick out what they did decide to include from the story. Often the nods to the text are cursory at best, as not much more than characters’ names are replicated. But the feel of the story--the superstitious Dutch settlement, the dark, covered bridge, the tightly knit community, all of these are present in the film. The beautiful costumes and set work together to create a veritable feast for the eyes. Make no mistake, though, this is a horror movie, albeit an intellectual one, which makes it a perfect choice to view this Halloween.

POSTED BY:  L.R. Blizzard

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