Creatively speaking, all film directors have their peaks and their valleys. In these days of franchises, reboots, and expanded universes, it’s hard for auteurs to stand out. But Tim Burton is somewhat an anomaly; he has managed to work steadily in spite of the many changes to the film industry over the past three-and-a-half decades. But there is work, and there is art, and if you’re a fan or critic of the works of Burton, then you’ve probably noticed that he’s not a sharp as he used to be.
It was this month, 20 years ago in 1999, that Burton’s Sleepy Hollow was released. It represents Burton at his peak creatively. It hasn’t been all downhill since Sleepy Hollow, but Burton’s work since has been, for the most part, almost completely unable to capture the same sense of energy and creativity of Sleepy Hollow and its predecessors.
The second half of the 90s were not a good time for Tim Burton. Mars Attacks! had bombed in December of 1996; it was slapped around by critics for being too mean, it was misunderstood by audiences who didn’t get the tone, and Independence Day had already blown up all the best landmarks just six months earlier. Burton then spent the better part of a year-and-a-half trying to make Superman Lives happen, but that production was famously troubled by both script and budget issues till Warner Bros. put the project out of its misery.
Hit-hungry, Burton was recruited by producer Adam Schroeder to take a look at Sleepy Hollow, an update of the short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” from a collection of 34 essays and short stories published by Washington Irving in 1820. The story had been adapted and retold in just about every medium, and was even memorialized in a U.S. postage stamp in 1974, but the most famous adaptation is probably Disney’s 1949 animated feature, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Burton had been inspired by the movie, and one of the layout artists on the film was one of his teachers at CalArts.
Kevin Yagher, the effects artist who originally had the idea to make a new big-screen Sleepy Hollow, originally envisioned the film as a low budget “pretentious slasher movie,” but Burton dreamed bigger. The director’s vision was an homage to the horror films of Hammer Studios, a British production company who between the mid-50s to the mid-70s cranked out numerous movies with a distinct gothic flair, and a greater comfort with gory effects than was typical at the time. Many of the films featured classic monsters like Frankenstein, Count Dracula, or the Mummy, and combined humour with the macabre in a way that was fairly influential on both sides of the pond, including a weird little kid from Burbank who grew up to wish he was Vincent Price.
It’s a common misunderstanding that Price did not take part in any horror films produced by Hammer, but Price did star in several Roger Corman-produced horror movies in the 1960s based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Still, the tone was the same because Corman was very influenced by Hammer in this phase, producing elaborately staged and relatively stylish productions built around the magnetic performance of Price as the central character of Poe’s macabre worlds.
Like Hammer and Corman, Burton understood camp, staging, and being able to turn a classic character into something more suited to the director’s vision. Take Batman Returns, which featured an evil circus and a villain that rode around the sewers in a giant, mechanized rubber duck. Burton’s Gotham City was contained to the soundstages and backlots of Warner Bros, because a real city could never live up to Burton’s surrealistic tendencies.
Meanwhile, the comic book Dark Knight and his adversaries transcended the cops-and-robbers-in-spandex ideals of the printed page. Batman, Catwoman, and the Penguin are all misunderstood weirdos; they’re reclusive, castaway, and prone to use disguises as either a way to break out of their societal role. At one point, the subtext is made text when the Penguin says to Batman, “You’re just jealous, because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!” To which Batman replies, “You might be right.”
In Sleepy Hollow, Burton recasts Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) as an outsider too. Instead of a demure and superstitious schoolteacher, Crane is remade as a cynical policeman from New York with no truck for talk of mysticism. In an early scene, Crane rails against a justice system that uses “medieval” torture tactics to coerce confessions as opposed to using science and deduction to find the guilty. There’s a palpable tension as the urbane and skeptical Crane arrives in Sleepy Hollow and is inundated with rumours about ghouls and goblins.
Like in Disney’s animated movie, certain citizens of Sleepy Hollow don’t take kindly to arrival of Crane, especially Brom (Casper Van Dien) who sees the New York constable as a romantic rival for Katrina (Christina Ricci), the daughter of the town’s wealthiest citizen. Now in the cartoon, Crane is out for Katrina’s wealth, and Katrina is looking to make Brom jealous by responding to Crane’s advances, but in Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, it’s the town that’s corrupt, and it falls on the outsider to expose the hypocrisy with Katrina, who’s an innocent in all the town’s dirty dealings. As with Edward Scissorhands, Burton demonstrates a disdain and distrust for small-town homogeneity where the outsider sticks out like a sore thumb.
It’s fitting then that Burton’s Edward returns here as Ichabod. Sleepy Hollow was Johnny Depp’s third collaboration with Burton, but it was probably the last time it seemed natural. From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Alice in Wonderland to Dark Shadows, it felt like the two of them were reinforcing and exacerbating their instincts and appeal for the unconventional. They were the De Niro/Scorsese or the Banderas/Almodovar of weirdos; being weird was the was the point, while story and character were secondary to make-up and costume. It’s like all those conversations between actor and director started with “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”
In Sleepy Hollow, Burton keeps the lights and spinning rims in context. The film is impeccably staged, no detail is spared, and the blood and gore are used to maximum effect, but none of it works without the eclectic group of acting talent. Burton used his own repertory players like Depp, Jeffrey Jones, Martin Landau, and Christopher Walken, along with old Hammer actors like Christopher Lee and Michael Gough (who also played Alfred in Burton’s Batman films), and British theatre veterans who either came up through either the Old Vic (Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths), or the Royal Shakespeare Company (Ian McDiarmid).
This familiarity in front of the camera was coupled with familiarity behind it. Regular Burton collaborators Danny Elfman (music), Chris Lebenzon (film editor), Colleen Atwood (costumes) and Rich Heinrichs (art director) were all transplants from Superman Lives and were just as hungry as Burton to finally put their hard work on the big screen.
Two key changes to the regular Burton roster though helped elevate Sleepy Hollow. The first was Emmanuel Lubeski who went on to win three Best Cinematography Oscars in a row for Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant. Lubeski appreciated Burton’s desire to capture the spirit of the old Hammer movies, and even threw in some influence from 60s Mexican horrors. The other strong addition was Top Stoppard, who did an uncredited re-write of the script by Andrew Kevin Walker, giving the dialogue a more high-brow, Masterpiece Theatre kind of twinge that plays contrast to the camp and violence throughout the film.
It’s this friction that makes Sleepy Hollow a success, the cast looked and sounded like any group in a period drama, but then you cut to Crane being sprayed with blood as he chops away at a dead tree full of decapitated heads. The film was beautifully designed on a soundstage, but there was still something about it that felt organic, perhaps because it came from a singular vision. Big Hollywood movies these days are not terribly expressive, made to be replicated easily and understood across cultures. From the opening montage to the closing shot, Sleepy Hollow says “Tim Burton” with every frame.
“From the opening montage to the closing shot, Sleepy Hollow says “Tim Burton” with every frame.”
Now it would be incorrect to say that Burton’s been creatively stagnant since Sleepy Hollow. Certainly, Big Fish captured a lot of his recurring themes and featured a gifted cast, and while Sweeny Todd was a satisfying adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical, it’s hard to say if Burton gets all the credit for faithfully adapting a beloved 40-year-old stage production.
Indeed, much of Burton’s work over the last 20 years have been characterized by remakes: Planet of the Apes, Charlie, Alice, Dark Shadows, Dumbo, and even his own Frankenweenie. Because all these films in their original iteration are well-known and beloved, Burton had to lean harder into his own tastes, and that meant extravagant costumes, over-the-top camp, and a reliance on spectacle to the exclusion of grounded characterization and drama.
Burton has tried to get real twice, once with the true-life tale Big Eyes, and later with the adaption of Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but they both lacked Burton’s sense of whimsy. Ed Wood, which is not fantastical, is still carried by the eccentricity of the characters and their underdog struggle to make movies despite a lack of talent or skill, but Big Eyes takes itself entirely too seriously even though it comes from the same screenwriters as Ed Wood, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Miss Peregrine’s should have been easily in the Burton mould with a tale about super-powered children, but Burton gets lost in Rigg’s own complex mythology in a surprisingly faithful adaption that someone surely wanted to turn into a franchise.
It was no surprise when Burton retreated back to Disney and their willingness to greenlight anything that remakes something they already own, but it was almost an admission of defeat by the director: if I can’t succeed at remaking myself, I can always succeed at remakes. Burton fans feel like he’s lost his gothic North star, gone is his sense of wanderlust and his sympathy for the outsider, at least when it comes to challenging hegemonic structures. Burton himself can’t sympathize because he’s not an outsider anymore; the man that was once tossed from Disney Animation for being too outside the mainstream is now on the studio’s speed dial, which is great for business, but not for creativity, or originality.
At the end of Sleepy Hollow, Crane returns to New York having helped vanquish the Headless Horseman and his human co-conspirator. Crane leads Katrina out of the cab, and she’s seen wearing a black and white stripe dress, like something out of Beetlejuice. As they walk up the street, the snow gently falls around them, like Kim as Edward carves the ice in Edward Scissorhands. It feels now like a metaphor to watch Crane and Katrina walk away from the audience and disappear into the crowd: Burton was walking away from everything we knew, and he didn’t look back.