Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dark Romance #3 ~ Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow"

(Obligatory spoiler warning - if you've not seen the film or read the original short story, but intend to, move on to some other blog 'cause THAR BE SPOILERS! Also, one of the items linked below leads to a profanity-laced tribute to the Headless Horseman, so approach with caution if you don't approve of that kinda stuff.)

When Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow was released in 1999 (with the punchy, if predictable, tagline, "Heads will roll!"), I fell for its gorgeous gruesomeness, hard. It's become a favorite and serves as today's study of dark romance.

First, the kvetching: the film only loosely follows the tale laid out by Washington Irving. But then, according to Peter Miller (writer of the "Afterword" in the Signet Classic edition of Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.), Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" ripped off German folklore, generally, and Gottfried Burger's "Der wilde Jäger," in particular (Afterword, p. 377). Well, whatevs - Miller doesn't think Irving's contemporaries would've cared and nor do I - it's a ripping good yarn, if you'll pardon the imagery.

Anyway, in Sleepy Hollow we've got Irving's basic cast of characters (Ichabod Crane, Baltus and Katrina Van Tassel, "Brom Bones," Gunpowder the Horse, and, of course, the Headless Horseman - who, it must be noted, was probably not the genuine article in the short story). Burton diverges from Irving's story in several ways: Crane, rather than being a geekazoid schoolmaster from Connecticut, is a (hawt) young constable from New York city (which puts me in mind of the role that helped propel the actor who portrays him, Johnny Depp, into stardom - that of Officer Tom Hanson in TV series "21 Jump Street"); there's a whole cast of named characters who've got sordid shenanigans coming out the wazoo; and, getting back to Crane, a "father-wounding" theme that recurs in Burton's work (in, for example, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or, inadvertently and without malice, Edward Scissorhands). While I'm compelled to make a little bit of noise about these deviations, I'm not too fussed about 'em, I just want to make the point for folks who've not read Irving's story (which I've linked above, so quit slacking and get to it, already).

In Irving's story, the main action revolves around the rivalry of Crane and Bones for the hand of the nubile Katrina, as well as Crane's ill-fated ride home from a country dinner one dark and lonesome night. In Burton's film, we've got the murders of four to five* denizens of the titular village which bring Crane, with his kookily newfangled and untried instruments, in to investigate. The romantic rivalry exists but is done away with by the intervention of the devilish Horseman (poor hunky Casper Van Dien!), leaving us with a horror-whodunnit and wondering if Crane will get the girl before the Horseman gets his head.

The dark romance of it all: Oh, where to begin?! First, Depp is adorable as the intrepid yet simultaneously cowardly Crane. He's determined to solve the case by means of science and cool reasoning, but frequently freaks out - to great comic effect - when the occult proves to be the source of all the mystery. Then there's the lush setting, costumes (I would consider committing criminal acts to possess one of Katrina's gowns), and set design, and a hushed, misty landscape which becomes a character in its own right. (And I won't even complain - much - about it being mostly filmed in England, rather than the place in which it's set.)  The cinematography is so beautifully effective that one can almost feel the autumnal chill, the toasty warmth of the hearth fires, even smell the gamey scents of a late 18th century village (did they really not think to pen up their sheep at night?), and shiver from the ominous gloom-painted skies above. But what I love the most about this film is (and you'll hardly be surprised to learn it) the Horseman. That strapping (if headless) physique - woof. His inexorable approach, heralded by the thrilling thunder of hoofbeats - woof. The scrape of steel when he unsheathes his spectral sword and gives it a masterful twirl as he sights his prey - woof! Every time he ventured forth like some "night headhunter looking for some head," my heart throbbed. OK, there's that one scene where he murders a family in their home that I can never bear to sit through (especially the bit with the little boy hiding beneath the floorboards, to no avail, alas - gah!). Apart from that, the ghostly avenger is hot, hot, hot - and never hotter than when he pitilessly turns the tables on the one who'd enslaved him.

*I say "four to five " because there were "five victims in four coffins," which you'll just have to check out for yourself...if you dare. ;-)

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