Saturday, August 9, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

The other night for the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood I'm doing with my friend Nick, I watched the film Sleepy Hollow (1999). Here's the actual recording. The "blast from the past movie review" train continues rolling...

The Good

*The atmosphere and colors are really well-done. It's a beautiful, well-shot film. Apparently this is something director Tim Burton is really good at.

*The concept is really quite creative. Making the Headless Horseman into a murderous movie villain could've gone into pure slasher territory (and according to the Wikipedia entry, that's where it was going before Tim Burton got involved). Instead, we get something a lot smarter and generally better. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail for fear of spoilers, but I do like the overall plot. And the Horseman himself is really quite impressive.

*Johnny Depp did a good job playing Ichabod Crane, a police officer and a big fan of rationalism, the Enlightenment, etc. rather than a gold-digging schoolteacher. Even when he's finally convinced that the Headless Horseman is real, he still applies his rationalist, scientific approach to deduce that it's not some just a monstrous hell-fiend gratuitously murdering people, but something with a purpose. He's also somewhat gray--on more than one occasion he puts others between himself and danger, albeit fairly subtly and perhaps even unconsciously. And he's afraid of spiders and prone to fainting.

*Although my compatriots didn't receive Casper Van Dien's presence in the film very well when he was first introduced, I did like his version of Brom Bones. The film retains his territorial, possessive attitude toward Katrina Van Tassel, but he's not a blowhard bully (as he is in the animated film). In fact, he takes on the Headless Horseman and puts up a pretty impressive fight.

*Given the gadgets people use in the film, you could credibly call it steampunk. Ichabod has got a cool medical bag with brass shelves that pop out, while Brom has got some kind of steampunk sniper rifle. It's awesome.

The Bad

*The movie comes off at times as neo-pagan religious propaganda. A character is saved from a bullet by a book of magic spells rather than by a Bible or cross (the latter I remember quite well from The Three Musketeers film from the early 1990s), a Puritan preacher is anti-intellectual and corrupt, a church only becomes a sanctuary from the Headless Horseman when one of the good witches draws a charm to protect a loved one from evil on the floor, and a character has a free-spirited witch mother who is abused and ultimately murdered (in a torture chamber hidden in a church no less) by a grim and stereotypically evil Puritan father. Meanwhile, Ichabod is a skeptic and the rest of the sympathetic characters are witches. The obvious response is that having symbols of the Christian faith protecting people from physical danger (i.e. bullets) or spiritual foes is Christian propaganda, but that doesn't explain the purely negative portrayal of Christians in the film. Young Masbath, the boy who becomes Ichabod's helper to help avenge his murdered father, could've been developed as a good Christian character, given how he tells Ichabod that his mother is in Heaven and now his father is there to take care of her. That's similar to what I did with the Janissary Mehmed in my short story "The Beast of the Bosporus" on the advice of my writing group to avoid accusations of anti-Muslim prejudice (given how other Muslim characters are drunks or practitioners of dark magic). However, a bad witch explicitly describes making a pact with Satan, a figure not present in any neo-pagan religion I'm aware of.

*The Headless Horseman can be harmed (or at least knocked around) by blades or bullets but, since he's already dead, not killed. There's a scene where a building is blown up with the Horseman in it, but he emerges without a scratch. It would've been a lot cooler if the characters thought they'd killed him but instead he emerges from the burning building on fire and the flames slowly die off. That would have been visually awesome.

*Christopher Walken, who plays the Horseman in scenes when he has his head, is a goggled-eyed lunatic who rasps and snarls a lot but never actually speaks coherently. At times he was unintentionally hilarious, especially with his bizarre Albert Einstein-esque hair.

*There's a scene where a character lurks in a fortified tree-fort (it's surrounded by what look like anti-cavalry stakes) to shoot the Horseman if he approaches Sleepy Hollow. He shoots at the Horseman and we later see him running away on foot and getting cut down. Why didn't he stay in his little fort? It would've been better if we see how the Horseman drove him out (perhaps by setting the fort on fire?), because him abandoning a safe space the way he did was just dumb.

The Verdict

It's a pretty good movie. 7.5 out of 10.

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