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Stream to Scream: “SLEEPY HOLLOW” (1999)

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Despite being in the FANGORIA Hall of Fame and synonymous with the modern Gothic movement, Tim Burton’s association with the horror genre remains a point of contention among horror fans to this day. While Burton has undeniably helmed horror films over the years, including BEETLEJUICE, DARK SHADOWS and SWEENEY TODD, some fright fans argue Burton is better known for his penchant towards dark, warped aesthetics than producing legitimate scare fare worthy of the genre mantle. Yet even the most hard-pressed horror hound has to admit that Burton put substance over style in at least one of his macabre movies, and it’s an impressive offering at that: 1999’s SLEEPY HOLLOW!

Though the film was originally developed as a period piece slasher to be directed by FX guru Kevin Yagher, Washington Irving’s THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW seems to be a perfect fit for Tim Burton, offering a fantastical tale with feet firmly dug into the world of horror. However, SE7EN writer Andrew Kevin Walker helped reconstruct the tale into something more fitting for a modern audience, weaving in aspects of witchcraft, murder procedural and revenge into the American legend. Walker and Burton even gave the Headless Horseman a backstory and motivation, dispelling the ambiguity of Irving’s tale for straightforward scares.

Tim Burton’s SLEEPY HOLLOW does a great job of presenting the multiple facets of Burton as a director, converging and connected by the director’s love of horror. Burton’s sardonic wit is ever present in SLEEPY HOLLOW as is his passion for storybook fantasy, but from pumpkin-headed Scarecrows to bloody dismemberment to frightening fog mystically putting out torches, the film takes pride in its horror elements in ways Burton’s horror-comedies never quite. And SLEEPY HOLLOW also easily offers the scariest scenes Burton has ever put to film, including the initial confrontation with the veiled Witch and the Horseman’s attack on the Killian family.

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SLEEPY HOLLOW also offers a new side of Burton that his fans had never seen before: the unrestrained and gory side. SLEEPY HOLLOW by nature features a good amount of decapitations, most of which are seamlessly produced between practical and digital effects, as well as various brutal murders and post-mortem examinations. Of course, Burton likely benefitted most from having Kevin Yagher’s practical FX work on his side, allowing the wounds and corpses to look absolutely gruesome and totally believable.

And then there’s the fact that the film is undeniably beautiful, with Academy Award-nominated cinematography from Emmanuell Lubezki bringing the Academy Award-winning production design from Rick Heinrichs and Peter Young to stunning reality. With a heavy emphasis on practical sets and props, SLEEPY HOLLOW evokes the Hammer Horror feel without dipping too far into homage territory and still feeling within Burton’s unique wheelhouse. However, the film is elevated by the attention to detail and absolutely gorgeous recreation of Irving’s universe, which almost turns SLEEPY HOLLOW from a big budget horror film to an immersive, imaginative experience.

Overall, SLEEPY HOLLOW is not only a horror film that feels timeless in nature, but remains Burton’s best and most pure horror offering to date. With an excellent cast, a clever script and top-notch FX work, SLEEPY HOLLOW is the kind of epic horror film on Burton could deliver, and certainly the kind that aren’t produced anymore (save for Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Hammer-esque film CRIMSON PEAK). And with the film available on instant streaming, younger audiences more accustomed to the barebones world of Blumhouse horror and Netflix’s low-budget offerings may find SLEEPY HOLLOW as a worthwhile gateway into bigger and bolder horror films of yesteryear.

SLEEPY HOLLOW is now streaming on Netflix Instant.

About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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