Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Burtonfest Day II: Sleepy Hollow

I forgot what a deeply weird movie Sleepy Hollow was. I knew that it was an experiment, a pastiche of hammer horror, and Mario Bava with the gore and angst turned up to eleven. In short I remembered it as pretty much harmless. What I forgot is just how strange and conflicted the film is. How blackly comic (Probably the only movie ever to build a gag around the blood of an unborn fetus), perversely sexual, and bizarrely campy yet deadpan it all was. Guys, I don’t know if anyone else has noticed or if I’m just late to the party, but Sleepy Hollow is one seriously fucked up movie.

I’m beginning to think that Andrew Kevin Walker has a curse on him, that whenever he tries to make a gothic horror film, he’ll fail miserably. Now granted Sleep0y Hollow didn’t have the epic production problems that Wolfman had, I’m more then willing to bet that what ended up filmed was a far cry from Walker’s script. While the deadly serious Walker movie peeks through in the film’s somewhere beyond Freudian Dream sequences, and Depp’s impassioned speeches about reason in the face of Headless horsemen, they're buried under the fact that Burton made one hell of a goofy ass movie. Which somehow makes everything even more disturbing.

Unlike the Wolfman which swung wildly between attempts at serious gothic horror and scenes in which we where treated to the sight of Anthony Hopkins practicing lycanthrope based Kung Fu and CGI dancing bears, Hollow finds its tone of overwrought melodrama and sticks to it with a dedication that’s admirable even when it seems borderline insane. The scene in which we get to watch Christopher Walken’s origin story, complete with more filed teeth and decapitations then the reign of Henry the VIII plays like Burton watched Coppala’s Dracula origin and went, “Myah Too subtle.”

This is between the scenes of Depp attaching fetishic, insectoid, “forensic equipment” to his face.

And one in which the cast capers around the giant Vagina Tree.

(It might not look it but this tree is made entirely from Vaginas)

A graphic sex scene filmed with Jeffery Jones, Black Sunday inspired dream sequences, Michael Gambon being dragged out of stain glass windows with a spike impaled through his chest like he’s a Marlin, all implemented with some of the dodgiest CGI this side of Emmerich’s Godzilla and punctuated by the occasional bit of decapitation.

Like I said this is a weird fucking movie.

Depp gives a central performance so aggressively foppish that it’s kind of unbelievable. Sleepy Hollow is a transformative film for Depp. One where Being Johnny Depp didn’t quite mean the same thing it meant when it one was referring to his films up to Fear And Loathing, but where he had yet to reach the Captain Jack level of Archness he’s known for today. His Crane actually seems like the love child between Captain Jack and William Blake from Dead Man. A kind of flamboyant sop.

The rest of the cast gets into the same spirit. Michael Gambon looks suitably distressed to be facing a Hessian of the damned who emerges from a vagina tree, Michael Gough gets decapitated quite nicely, and even Casper Van Diem gets into the spirit of things. Miranda Richardson gives a performance that can only be described as resplendently bitchy. Not to mention Christopher Lee who makes the most out of his brief cameo. Give Burton credit for this. He was the first to realize the potential in Old Man Christopher Lee. Before Lucas, before Jackson, it was Burton who gave Lee his first crack at a major movie since Gremlins 2.

The only one not in on the joke unfortunately is Christina Ricci. Who despite the fact that she makes my heart go pitter patter like no one outside of Kate Winslet, spends the entire movie acting like no one bothered to tell her it was a period piece until they began to lace her up into her corset.

While Sleepy Hollow is more disturbing (and usually not for the reasons the movie means it) then scary, but it does have a couple of great set pieces. Particularly a scene in a cabin that works because it “pays off” about three times before it ends. It knows Genre beats well enough to know you keep expecting it to end, and when it doesn’t… Well all bets are off.

Stylistically, Sleepy Hollow is Burton at his most arch and extreme. Every scene looks like it was shot on surviving Hammer sets that where modified whilst the entire crew was on Peyote. The obviousness of the film’s set bound nature gives the whole thing a nightmarish claustrophobic feel.

Sleepy Hollow isn’t what I’d call a great movie, or even a good one. But I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it. Its so uniquely off kilter, told through such a quintensially Burtonian prism, that I can’t help but kind of love it. I just don’t know if its in spite of or because of, how goofy it is.


Unknown said...

"Every scene looks like it was shot on surviving Hammer sets that where modified whilst the entire crew was on Peyote."

This made me laugh because it's so true. I have always felt that SLEEPY HOLLOW was Burton's love letter to Hammer horror with a dash of Mario Bava thrown in for good measure. I actually really love this film because it is such a mess in some respects and it is so odd for a big studio blockbuster. The fact that it was a commercial success still boggles my mind.

And what can you say about Johnny Depp in this film? Actually, I think you said it quite well - he pushes foppishness to an extreme in this one which puts the film off-kilter but in a good way.

I would say that this film works mainly because of its mood and atmosphere. This is a great looking film and I love the shots of fog rolling through the village and countryside. If I'm not mistaken wasn't this shot mostly on sets? It looks great regardless.

Bryce Wilson said...

"I actually really love this film because it is such a mess in some respects and it is so odd for a big studio blockbuster. The fact that it was a commercial success still boggles my mind."


I had to keep telling myself, "This was a hit! It was BIG hit!" Did no one notice how deeply weird it was.

Unknown said...

The way I figure it is that Tim Burton has a reputation for making "weird" films and so it is just assumed that whatever he makes next is going to be odd and somehow he's made that commercially viable.