FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical*
Given that I was a baby boomer, "my" Headless Horseman was inevitably the Disney version. I'm pretty sure that I'd read the Washington Irving short story in school, but it was just OK. Disney's version was THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, one of two long cartoons created for the 1949 feature THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MISTER TOAD. I don't doubt that I saw Disney's version of SLEEPY HOLLOW on the "Wonderful World of Disney" teleseries, and the Horseman remains one of the scariest things the company ever brought to life, what with its demonic-looking horse, ghastly laugh and murderous sword. The cartoon, like the original story, ends in an ambiguous manner, and I've seen an argument online for the possibility that the Horseman was a true ghost. That said, I've always tended to regard the Horseman in both media to be a put-up job arranged to scare away schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. Thus, even though I once asserted that I thought the Horseman was the star of the story, even though I deemed him an illusion, a part of me always wished that the Horseman-- perhaps the first original boogieman produced in American prose fiction-- could take on a definitively real presence.
And in 1999, Tim Burton and his writers delivered just such a "real boogieman" in 1999's SLEEPY HOLLOW.
Burton seemed tailor-made for such an assignment, having rocketed to success in the world of high-profile Hollywood projects with his version of Batman and original film-characters Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Arguably he also introduced the real-life figure of Ed Wood to audiences that would never have heard of the "so bad he's good" director.
1999's SLEEPY HOLLOW is just as well mounted as any of the "big pictures" Burton had previously directed. But since the original story doesn't allow for a bonafide supernatural menace, Crane becomes a New York constable sent to investigate a series of decapitation murders in the small Dutch town of Sleepy Hollow. The date of the original story, 1790, is moved down nine years so that the film's story can take place in a millennial year, just like the release-date of the film. This Crane, instead of being jittery and superstitious, is a resourceful believer in modern science and forensic methods. Like many Burton characters, Crane has a past clouded by parental issues: his mother was falsely accused of being a witch, and his own father, apparently a priest, surrendered her to be executed. Given that horrific background, Crane does not want to believe that the supernatural is anything but delusion and hoaxes.
He meets the assorted quirky denizens of Sleepy Hollow, and forms an attachment to young heiress Katrina Von Tassel, despite some competition from local bully-boy Brom Bones. And he also encounters the Horseman, witnessing how the headless rider easily chops off the heads of its victims while resisting assaults by sword and gun. In a second encounter both Crane and Brom Bones attempt to fight the Horseman, and the battle ends with Brom's death, efficiently signaling to the audience that this story departs in other ways from the Irving tale.
Still, Crane continues to believe in the validity of deductive logic, as he realizes that the murderous ghost can have no good motive for targeting the citizens he slays-- and that, therefore, the creature must be the pawn of a mortal summoner. Crane doesn't exactly pin down the right suspect at the first crack-- indeed, Burton allows for Crane to take a few pratfalls, keeping him a reasonably human hero. But in the end, the reality of the supernatural does not invalidate the applicability of logic to the matter of human motives.
There's a great deal of high-octane action throughout the film, though it allows for fair amounts of quirky humor and touching romantic moments. The psychological issues are not deep, and it may be that the only reason for Crane's backstory re: the witch-persecutions was to serve as a red herring; to make the reader anticipate a culprit who would reflect the hero's daddy issues. But overall SLEEPY HOLLOW does not disappoint in any major way.
That said, it's still not the "real boogieman" film I hoped for, and it's because the Horseman has no agenda of his own, as all the best monsters do. He's a catspaw here, and that's not necessarily all that much better than being an illusion: in both cases there's some puppet-master pulling the strings.
Further, the film is much more focused on the hero than the monster, which is one reason I deem it "adventure" rather than a horrific drama, just as I did with Steven Sommers' Mummy trilogy.
More disappointingly, SLEEPY HOLLOW proved much less ambitious and heartfelt than Burton's previous directorial efforts. However, given that the next film he did was the critically panned PLANET OF THE APES, this adventure of Ichabod Crane is a classic by comparison.