Is Sleepy Hollow Secretly Brilliant?
October 27, 2014
(The NostalgiaWeen opening for 2014 plays, before showing NC in his chair)
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. Every NostalgiaWeen, I always wrap up the holidays by watching one of my favorite timeless classics, Disney's Sleepy Hollow.
(Clips from the Headless Horseman segment from Ichabod and Mr. Toad are shown)
NC (vo): I grew up with it as a kid and still enjoy it to this day, with its rich atmosphere, clever storytelling, and ingenious payoff right out of a classic ghost story, which is... what it was to begin with.
(Clips from Tim Burton's version of Sleepy Hollow are shown)
NC (vo): So as you can imagine, I was pretty excited to see one of my favorite directors at the time, Tim Burton, with some of my favorite actors at the time, Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci and so forth, bring to life the Gothic tale of the infamous Headless Horseman. My reaction was... something like this.
(A clip from Spaceballs is shown)
Barf: What the hell was that?
NC: When the film came out, I had no idea what to make of it.
(Footage from Sleepy Hollow is shown)
NC (vo): I mean, it looked beautiful, and even to this day, I'm blown away by its atmosphere. But the story seemed totally insane, it seemed to have practically nothing to do with the original, and it pissed me off that the kids' version was more grown-up than the grown-up version! Where's all the smart stuff I was promised when I was a kid?! Throughout all of my confusion, though, there was one question that stuck out the most to me. Is this meant to purposely be a bad movie?
(Posters of what NC is about to mention are shown)
NC (vo): You know, along the lines of, say, Army of Darkness or even the Steven Sommers Mummy films?
(Back to Sleepy Hollow footage)
NC (vo): Was this a tongue-in-cheek satire that a lot of us just weren't getting? If so, did that technically make it better or worse?
(Clips of Batman & Robin are shown briefly)
NC (vo): Batman & Robin was a satire, but we all know what a classic blunder that was. But still, it was hard to get a grip on if this was even what the movie wanted to be. There seemed to be a lot of humor to it, Ichabod being a coward, the excessive amount of gore, and, good God, the greatest use of Christopher Walken ever.
Headless Horseman (Walken): Aaah! Aaah!
NC (vo): If you're gonna have Christopher Walken, give him crazy-ass hair, sharp teeth, and only have him growl. That is fucking ingenious.
Headless Horseman: Aaah! Aaah!
NC (vo): But still, for years, I couldn't get an idea about what this movie was trying to accomplish.
(Several clips from several episodes of the Cinemassacre series Monster Madness are shown)
NC (vo): Then a series called Monster Madness came around, hosted by... (an image of James Rolfe is shown briefly) I don't know, I forget his name, but...
(Cut to footage of an episode of Monster Madness: a review of The Revenge of Frankenstein, along with other episodes)
NC (vo): ...he talked about a style/genre of horror films called "Hammer Horror". I kind of knew what this was, but didn't do too much research into it. Upon further investigation, it [Hammer Films] was a production studio that got popular in the '60s and '70s that did scary films, many of them remakes of classics, trying to give them their own '60s and '70s touch. Doing so created its own type of unique look and feel, one that could pretty much not be mistaken for anything else. Seeing this suddenly made me realize what I and possibly the majority of audiences were missing the whole time with Sleepy Hollow.
(Cut to alternating footage of Sleepy Hollow and Hammer Horror films)
NC (vo): This wasn't a horror film, this was a Hammer Horror film, a dedication to a style long since gone. Reaching too far, you say? Trying to read too deep into something that's not there? Well, let's take a look at some of the staples of Hammer. First of all, the sets. The sets in Sleepy Hollow were mostly constructed to be colorless, giving a Gothic and otherworldly look that looks eerily similar to the Hammer sets as well. How about the story? It has almost nothing to do with the original book. Ichabod is a constable instead of a teacher, a do-gooder instead of a selfish schemer, and he spends his time chasing a Headless Horseman that is proven to be real, rather than just a legend or a story. The whole story reads like a goofy supernatural crime drama, like...
(Cut to the poster for Sleepy Hollow)
NC (vo): Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.
NC: (pretends to beat a drum as a rimshot plays in the background) Wait, that was technically two jokes. (plays the "drum" again twice, as the rimshot plays twice)
(The Hammer Horror montage continues)
NC (vo): The Hammer Films? Well, they're remakes of classic monster movies. Surely, they'd stick closer to the source material than Sleepy Hollow did. But when you get right down to it, not really. The Hammer Films usually took the story, and made it even less like the book than the original black-and-white films did, often resulting in complicated plots that only got more and more complicated as they went into the sequels. Much like Sleepy Hollow's plot, which is so complicated, you'd swear it was a bad episode of Sherlock. In fact, even Tim Burton said he felt like he was making a Scooby-Doo episode half the time. That doesn't sound like someone who wanted to strike fear into his audience as much as pay respect to something he enjoyed. Even the actors chose it. Hammer often had very dignified British actors as both the leads and the supporting roles. Here, they fill the screen. In fact, both Christopher Lee and Michael Gough have been in a ton of Hammer Horror films. Christopher Lee even has a little nod here with these statue wings looking like a bat, fitting seeing how he played Dracula in a series of Hammer films for years. While Depp and Ricci are certainly not British, they both play the parts pretty well of the bumbling hero who must foil evil and the damsel in distress who must be saved. Though, to be fair, she needed a lot more screaming to complete this Hammer trope.
(Cut to a clip of Batman, where Batman saves Vicki Vale, who screams)
NC (vo): She should've taken a note from Kim Basinger.
(Cut back to Sleepy Hollow and snippets of Hammer Horror films)
NC (vo): Both of these are the kind of main characters you see continually in the Hammer franchise. The effects as well are both kind of good and kind of bad, much like the effects in the '60s. Most of them are done on set, except when they need to take something away like... oh, a head. And even when they do use CG to add something, as opposed to take away, it looks pretty hokey. Kind of like some other layover effects from Hammer. The excess of constant gore and decapitations is also a play on how much gore and decapitations were in... you guessed it! ...Hammer!
(Cut to images of the original black-and-white horror movies of Dracula and Frankenstein)
NC (vo): This is important to note, because, in the original Dracula and Frankenstein, there was nothing gory at all. It was all the power of suggestion.
(Cut to a clip of a Hammer Horror film, where a vampire's body is being reduced to body parts, blood and finally bone)
NC (vo): But the Hammer Films knew they had to up the gruesome and load it with gooey body parts and severed heads everywhere.
(Cut to a clip of Sleepy Hollow)
NC (vo): Again, sounding familiar. But the ultimate proof, in my opinion?
(Cut to another montage of Hammer Film clips)
NC (vo): As I said before, Hammer's color palette often consists of a lot of grays, and even when they did have other color, they were often purposely faded.
(Cut to a montage of scenes involving blood, bright red, either from cuts or severed body parts)
NC (vo): But in both Hammer Films and Sleepy Hollow, the only color that leaps off the screen – because, back in the '60s, it was so rarely seen in color – was the blood. The blood was always bright red, almost neon, nothing like what real blood is like in real life. It's pretty hard to find any other genre that has blood that's distinctly colorful as this.
(Cut back to Sleepy Hollow and some neon-red blood scenes of its own)
NC (vo): Sure enough, in Sleepy Hollow... look at that! When is the last time you've ever seen blood that color in a movie? Blood you get in a costume shop looks more convincing than that, let alone a studio film! This had to be an intentional choice, because no blood that you see in films nowadays looks like this, and for good reason; it looks fake! This is something that had to be specially ordered. Somebody had to go to the blood person, show him or her a Hammer Horror film, and say, "I want it to look exactly like that."
NC: And that's exactly what Sleepy Hollow looks and feels like: a Hammer Horror film.
NC (vo): Yeah, it's corny, but Hammer was, too. Yeah, some of the effects are fake, but Hammer was, too. The style is still rich and so many good actors come in to do a part that, even though Gothic and cryptic, is still kinda cheesy, again almost identical to Hammer. So, was it intentional to be an homage? It sure feels like it. I think it would have been the mother of all coincidences if not, but even if it wasn't, it's pretty clear the influence is strong that it might as well be. This came out at a time when classic monster films...
(Cut to posters for horror movies that have been remade in recent years, including Sleepy Hollow)
NC (vo): ...were once again being remade, with Bram Stroker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But have you noticed there's no Washington Irving above this title? This was a [Francis] Ford Coppola-produced film, and he almost always put the author's name on top of any remake. But nope, not this one. Perhaps both him and Burton knew that this wasn't a faithful retelling of the original.
(Cut back to footage of Sleepy Hollow)
NC (vo): It was a retelling that an over-the-top, stylized mix of goofiness and gothic-ness could bring to life.
(Cut to a clip of a Hammer Horror film)
NC (vo): How fitting when you think about it. The same way Hammer Horror films were inspired by and retold the stylistic monster classics...
(Cut back to Sleepy Hollow)
NC (vo): ...now we have a filmmaker who was inspired by and retold the stylistic Hammer classics. Now, with that said, if you don't like the Hammer Horror films to begin with and find it pretty silly, you'll probably think the same thing about Sleepy Hollow, and that's fine; it's not for everyone. But nevertheless, it's important to know that there is a very specific genre being recreated here that was not just a work of randomness. It took skill to recreate this scene. It took clever casting to find the right people. It took major practice to get this film to give off the same feel as the film series that's been practically dead for about thirty years. Whether you get sucked into it or not, there are very careful hands that made silly scenes like this...
Headless Horseman: Aaah!
NC (vo): This...
Katrina Von Tassel: Goodbye, Ichabod Crane. I curse the day you came to Sleepy Hollow. (rides away)
NC (vo): And even this... (a scene of a snarling corpse is shown) ...a little bit smarter than many of us originally gave credit for.
Headless Horseman: Aaah! (rides away)
NC: (imitating Headless Horseman) Aaah! I'm the Nostalgia Critic and happy Halloween! (gets up from his chair and leaves)