Thursday 20 September 2018

Subordinate to the Spray-on Cobwebs

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

(This post was requested by Thaddeus Urban, who backed the “Whistle and I'll Come to You” tier on the surprisingly successful We Don't Go Back Kickstarter, where I promised to write about a film of the backer's choice. Thaddeus very kindly picked a film that's at least partially on topic, and about which I'd have much to say. Which was a relief, let me tell you.)

One of the criticisms that I often level at Tim Burton is that at some point he went from making movies to making Tim Burton Movies, by which I mean that the tics of his style overwhelm everything else, that they became about certain things that recur, over and over. There is a feeling of sweet decay to a Tim Burton Movie, that its gravestones are decked in spun sugar and spray-on cobwebs, and the gothic excess is accompanied by quirky comedy. Danny Elfman is there, too, making sweet spooky-ooky choral flourishes. A Tim Burton Movie (as opposed to a movie made by Tim Burton) is lush, and overwrought, and reassuringly creepy, and often includes this big, heavy subtext about parents and familial dysfunction, and if it's an adaptation where this isn't explicit, that subtext will be added, even if it's not there to start with. Take the bizarre backstory and coda in his version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), where Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp, as it so often is in Tim Burton Movies) is messed up because his dad, a dentist (Christopher Lee) put him in elaborate Heath Robinson dental appliances and disowned him due to him wanting to be a chocolatier.

Funny, isn't it though, that the charge I laid at the door of his Planet of the Apes was that it wasn't Tim Burton enough? I complained that Burton's trademark aesthetic had been abandoned, and I saw that as evidence that he evidently didn't care about the film, since the marks that make it his were largely absent. So what is it then? The bloke can't win: either he gets you playing Tim Burton Bingo, or he's not being Tim Burton enough. I mean, what is it about films like Beetlejuice (1988) or Ed Wood (1994) that makes them so much more satisfying than a film like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

Or for that matter Sleepy Hollow?

Sleepy Hollow definitely has the Burton Thing, all Gothic whimsy and windy spookiness. But although it's easily as in debt to Edward Gorey and Charles Addams as many of the most popular Burton films, it dials back on the humour, instead preferring to marry the whimsy to the tropes of a fairly straight Gothic horror film.

Tim Burton’s film is of course supposedly a retelling of Washington Irving’s droll satire of rural manners, and of course it isn't, not remotely. All the names are there: there's an Ichabod Crane, a Katrina van Tassel, a Brom Bones, a place called Sleepy Hollow, the local legend of a ghostly Hessian mercenary without a head haunting the local region. But it stops there.

I've got this tic that I've indulged in a little too much recently probably where I punctuate a film essay with quotes from the source material (you may have noticed this with Upstream Color or The Elephant Man, for example). It gives the whole thing a sort of fake gravitas, doesn't it? Can't do that with Sleepy Hollow. It'd just be nonsense. The names are the same, but the story is entirely, wholly different. I've mentioned adaptations that reverse the moral of the story (David Lynch's Dune), adaptations that diverge widely from the specifics of the text and keep the message (Annihilation), ones that say the exact same thing as the source in a very different way (Fight Club) and ones that are deliberate hatchet jobs on the source, critiquing it as vile (Salò, Starship Troopers).

Burton's Sleepy Hollow is none of the above. Washington Irving’s short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is irrelevant, entirely. Burton might as well have not read it: I mean it's easy to say something like “But in the book Ichabod Crane is a nerdy and superstitious schoolteacher who learns a hard lesson about his own averageness and who was never going to win the girl’s heart,” or “but in the book there's no actual skull-chucking Headless Horseman, just the local practical joker with a big cloak and a pumpkin,” but neither of these things matter. These things aren't even ignored, because ignoring a thing is in fact a sort of conscious engagement. The central elements of Irving’s story don't even get that. They're almost entirely forgotten.

So it's the first half of the 19th century, and here is New York detective Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a dedicated disciple of the rational, whose anachronistic insistence on things like police work and due process annoy his superiors so much they pack him off to rural Sleepy Hollow where he must solve a spate of grisly decapitations.

Did I say “anachronistic”? That's sort of a clue to where Burton is going with this. I mean, Wikipedia tells me that New York didn't have a police force before 1845, and yet the film tells us it's set in 1799, and the style of the people who live in the hamlet of Sleepy Hollow and the film's references to the Revolutionary War (one of which is central to the unfolding of the plot, its Big Reveal in fact) all support that. And this isn't a problem as such, because as one of the Tim Burtonest of Tim Burton Films, Sleepy Hollow isn't set in any real world, any more than a film like, say, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Edward Scissorhands (1990) is.
In fact, Sleepy Hollow is set in a sort of theme park Poe-land, a commodified cinematic expression of New England Gothic, and as the film goes on, it begins to admit some of the tropes of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s favourite: a beautiful beloved, done to death before her time by neglect and cruelty. Here it's Ichabod’s lost mother (Lisa Marie), and her death is by baroque, inquisitional torture courtesy of Ichabod’s “Bible-black tyrant” of a father. But Poe isn't a direct influence: it's Poe movies that supply the source material. Tim Burton himself said that Sleepy Hollow is “a love letter to Hammer” or some such, but frankly if Hammer got Sleepy Hollow as a love letter, you'd have to put the competence of the Post Office in serious doubt, because if this movie is a love letter to anything, it's to Roger Corman’s Poe movies. And OK, it's not like Burton quotes directly at any point from Tales of Terror (1962), Masque of the Red Death (1964), Premature Burial (1962) or House of Usher (1960), which incidentally hold a fond place in my heart, being the first real horror movies I ever saw, but the aesthetic, the dark sentimentality of the thing, the Poe-faced affect, that's absolutely here. There's a reference to Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960) here too, with a womam accused of witchery killed with the iron maiden, but it's a repurposed reference: in Bava's movie the woman is a black hearted villain, and in Burton's an innocent victim. This is, as we'll see, important to how Burton works in this film.

In the end, the references are why the film’s anachronisms aren't points on which the film should be criticised, any more than its disregard for the text it's supposedly adapting. Ichabod’s mother dying in an iron maiden would be completely absurd in a film that wasn't a mash up of Classic Corman with a bit of early Bava on the way, but since a Corman mash up (albeit a Corman mash up that thinks it's a Hammer mash up) is what we're watching, it isn't out of place. The same goes for the presence of the detective, and the fantasy bad guy costuming of The Horseman. These things aren't signifying a historical drama, or even a literary adaptation. And perhaps a Poe story might have been a more appropriate wrapper for this sort of film, but all the good stories are taken, and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is from the exact same cultural place as Poe, and the text is a lot more like a Poe story than you think (although the original text bears more resemblance to “The Man That Was Used Up” than “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, even if the film tends the other way).

The difference of course between Sleepy Hollow and its most obvious cinematic forebears is the difference between low budget exploitation films and a lavishly designed, lavishly cast Hollywood studio piece.
And it is lavishly cast, not so much with A-listers as with the sort of actor, mainly British, who you recognise and appreciate and think, “This is the Sort of Actor who is in Good Films.” It's prestige casting. And so aside from Depp as Ichabod Crane and Christina Ricci as Katrina van Tassel, we have Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, Miranda Richardson, Alun Armstrong, Christopher Lee in a short but pointed “Look everybody! It's Christopher Lee!” cameo, and a pre-disgrace Jeffrey Jones (but since it's got a pre-disgrace Johnny Depp in it, that's hardly the biggest deal, although Depp is still working and Jones isn't, and I'll just leave it at that). Casper van Dien (best known for Starship Troopers, I guess) was bankable in the late 90s, so he gets to grit his teeth and look cross as Brom. You can also see a pre-Outnumbered Clare Skinner in a small role. It is, in short, a phenomenal cast.

And everyone is having fun with it. This is a fun film. This is more important than you might think. Case in point: Burton's very next film, Planet of the Apes, is not fun. It is not fun because no one is having fun with it, most of all Burton, so Mark Wahlberg scowls through the whole thing and Tim Roth gives it his best shot but is really just sort of itchy, and Danny Elfman phones in a lumpen BOMBOMBADADABABAM Generic Action Movie Score and the whole thing is flat and tired and there's no real care to it, and holy crap it's a Planet of the Apes movie, it's not supposed to do that.

But Sleepy Hollow on the other hand has that Elfman music that swoooops and whooshes, and the film swoops and whooshes, and Burton piles on the GOTHIC WHIMSY, only with added BLOOD! and DEATH! and FEAR! and SPOOKY TREES! and WITCHES! and CHRISTOPHER! FUCKING! WALKEN! without a single word to say and still clearly having a massive giggle because even while he spends the biggest chunk of the film without even bearing an actual head, when he's on screen with his pointy teeth and his ridiculous hair, he spits and snarls and growls and chomps down hard on the cobweb-bedecked scenery and chews it up, and spits it right out.
Still, a great cast and everyone having fun don't make a film good by themselves. If Planet of the Apes is the liminal point, the non-Burtonesque film that divides the Good Tim Burton Movies from the Bad Tim Burton Movies, and it's a case you can make without a great deal of effort, Sleepy Hollow is the film where it might first feel that it's possible to have a bit too much Tim Burton, in that this is a Straight Horror Film that doesn't feel like a Straight Horror Film because the horror, the fear, the suspense, is subordinate to getting the spray-on cobwebs in the right place.

So, for instance, the film starts with Peter van Garrett (Martin Landau) getting dispatched by the horseman, except the whole scene is dominated by a scarecrow with a comical Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin head. Later, there's a scene about halfway through where the horseman kills Killian (Steven Waddington) and his wife (Clare Skinner) and even his young son, hiding under the floorboards, and it's supposed to be suspenseful and, well, horrible, but it's, well, sort of cartoony, sort of grimly comic without even clearly meaning to be, to the extent that I've got a hard aversion to depictions of acts of violence committed against children, and I was surprised to find that here I didn't bat an eyelid, and in a situation like that, you go and look more deeply because that's somehow not right. And of course, it's about Burton's eye, the way he genuinely digs the Gothic stuff to the extent that he's so busy making it look as cool as it is in his mind's eye, he forgets to make scary what should be the scariest and most distressing scene in the film.

And I suppose that's it, really, the thing that annoys me about Sleepy Hollow. It's a scary film that isn't all that scary, because the director is so in love with the spooky stuff.
I think it's partly because of that that Sleepy Hollow is so pagan. Christianity doesn't work in Sleepy Hollow. Hallowed ground doesn't deter the ghost – he only keeps out of the church because there's a witch’s sigil of protection inscribed on the floor, although everyone thinks the sign is the opposite of that. Ichabod, although the son of a pagan mother, misreads the benevolent protections of Katrina van Tassel’s witchcraft, right up to the end of the film, and certainly doesn't suspect Katrina’s stepmother (Miranda Richardson) as the real culprit – the one who has been driving the Horseman to murder by keeping his skull – until right at the end. Mistress van Tassel has not only been the culprit all along, she was in the film longer than we even knew: she turns out to be a character who we saw briefly at the start who we assumed to be incidental, but who is instrumental in the formation of the legend itself.

I have to admit, this is pretty satisfying – when it is revealed that she is the one who has been behind it all, the “Oh, that was her all along” flashback ties the whole thing together nicely (and in fact, you can't fault Sleepy Hollow structurally – it's full of details that look incidental but which turn out to be important, like a signature on a will, a specific tree behind the opening title). She's been invisibly in the background of everything, orchestrating everything behind the scenes, and isn't that completely right for a nineteenth century woman? The structures of society that she warps and twists to serve her ends also force her to behave in different ways to a standard horror movie villain. She and Katrina are both witches, and they're not the only ones. This movie is full of them. Ichabod’s mother is a child of nature; the witch in the cave is a classic cackling crone; Katrina is responsible and uses her spells for protection, and is very much the posterchild for the late 90s pop Wiccan good guy; and Mistress van Tassel is a bad witch who hides behind a veneer of respectability. But magic itself is neutral, a thing that is used for good and evil, depending on who's using it.

The film’s view of women, perhaps as a side effect of the Corman references that litter the piece, isn't wholly consistent. Ichabod’s mother is essentially killed horribly to give him a backstory and Beth Killian and her little boy are killed literally to show nothing more than the baddies are actually bad, and although Katrina as a character has agency, she still needs to be rescued at the end of the story. And of course, Katrina is Ichabod’s reward.

It's been suggested to me by a few people now that Sleepy Hollow is worth a look as a piece of folk horror, and… OK. Look. In the last few weeks I've got into more than one entanglement with what I like to call the Folk Horror Police. That is, there'll be a discussion on the social media about some folk horror thing or other, and someone will mention something that's necessarily not from 1970s Britain or the BBC, and inevitably someone will pop up and say, “Not folk horror.” And if they're challenged they'll say something like, “Yeah, but if the genre is defined too widely, it's useless,” or something equally daft. 
And of course the problem is that if you want to be absolutely correct, if you're going to be a Proper Purist, then the only piece of folk horror made before 2009 or so is Blood on Satan's Claw, because that's the only thing that consciously had the tag "folk horror" applied to it. And that's absurd, isn't it? But you see, folk horror, although, yes, a subgenre, is more of an aesthetic and it's the aesthetic we pick up on. And an aesthetic is always completely subjective.

And Sleepy Hollow ticks a lot of the boxes, but it somehow doesn't work as a piece of folk horror. And I hate saying something doesn't fit the aesthetic, because I'm for casting the net wide, and also the Folk Horror Police wind me up something awful.

But we can see it here. Sleepy Hollow might happen in an isolated rural place. It might have pagans and witches and weird moral implications. And it might have a happening, and even a summoning. But it doesn't fit. And it doesn't fit because it's so very Gothic. Because it's overblown and operatic and full of dry ice and spray-on cobwebs. Sleepy Hollow is full of high artifice, where folk horror is homemade. It is fantastical, where folk horror is about the juxtaposition of the prosaic and the uncanny. And absolutely nothing whatsoever about Sleepy Hollow is prosaic, and its hauntings are less uncanny and more the stuff of theatre. And I quite like Gothic stuff, and I like theatrical artifice. But when the artifice gets in the way of the apparent point of the film, I have to wonder if that was really deliberate, or if the film has a pretty severe flaw.

Tim Burton is probably one of the great living directors. But like a lot of idiosyncratic directors, he's got some profound flaws (which are themselves pretty interesting) and has made a fair few pretty bad films. I don't think Sleepy Hollow is a bad film. I don't think it's a great film, though, in whatever genre pigeonhole you choose to put it.

Want to read more of my film criticism? We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now.

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