Monday, October 12, 2015

Monsterpiece Theater: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

by Rustbelt

Publication Year: 1820 (Found Among the Papers of the Late Diedrich Nickerbocker)

“…Ichabod quickened his steed, in hopes of leaving this midnight companion behind. The stranger, however, quickened his horse to an equal pace. Ichabod pulled up, and fell into a walk, thinking to lag behind - the other did the same. His heart began to sink within him. There was something in the stranger's moody silence that was appalling. It was soon fearfully accounted for. On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow traveler in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horrorstruck on perceiving that he was headless!...”
Washington Irving…

“Washington Irving.” Many of us know the name, but who was he? Well, in a nutshell, he was America’s first great author and man of letters. Born the year the Revolutionary War ended, named for the first President (whom he met at the age of six), and, by his own admission, a bored student, he began writing for newspapers in his teens. Eventually, he branched out into satire and newspaper hoaxes. (If he were alive today, Irving would be the equivalent of prominent blogger **wink, wink Andrew**, a Youtube celebrity, or cable TV host.) His career included fighting in the War of 1812, nearly 20 years of “backpacking” across Europe, serving with the American Legation in London, wildly popular author in his own time, Ambassador to Spain, and chairman of the Astor Library (predecessor to the modern NY Public Library.)

Today, Irving is known for many things, like the famous novella “Rip Van Winkle.” He created the terms “Gotham” (“Goat’s Town” in old Latin) and “Nickerbocker,” which are now common terms for New York City. He also created that most eternally popular of phrases, “the almighty dollar.” And his satires of popular history (he would’ve been at home writing for ‘Mad Magazine’ or ‘the Onion’ today), are where we get the incorrect notion that everyone except Christopher Columbus believed the world was flat. (Oops!) Yet, despite all of this, it’s this short story about a teacher, a ghost, an heiress, and a jock living a tiny village 30 miles from NYC that serves as his best known work. And it’s so well-associated with Halloween, what better placer to start this series?

…and his famous Short Story

It’s a tale many know well (and if they read the original story, nerds would hate): The lanky, scarecrow-shaped schoolmaster Ichabod Crane (who probably weighed 90 pounds soaking wet), attempts to woo blonde beauty Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of the richest farmer around. In his way stands the linebacker-built, be-letter-jacketed town tough guy Brom Bones and his gang of toadies, the Sleepy Hollow Boys. After enduring some of Brom’s good-natured pranks, Ichabod asks for Katrina’s hand at a harvest party held at her father’s house. Ichabod leaves depressed and looking crestfallen, (she said NO!), and heads home to the school house by way of the trail that runs through the woods of Sleepy Hollow. There, the extremely superstitious principal runs into a man on a horse with no head! The rider chases Ichabod to a bridge by the Dutch Cemetery. However, instead of vanishing like local legend says he should, the horseman throws his head at Ichabod. The next morning, only Ichabod’s hat, horse, and a shattered pumpkin are found. Many believe he was ‘spirited away’ by the ghost. On the other hand, Brom Bones, now happily married to Katrina, always smiles when someone mentioned Ichabod’s disappearance.
Irving wrote the story as part of his Sketch Book, a collection of his stories and essays, while traveling through Europe. At its heart, the story is about two guys vying for the town beauty. However, much of the story is devoted to the customs and local traditions of the mostly Dutch town. The narrator often tells us he’s rather unreliable, as he mentions that he can only infer what happened. (We aren’t told what Ichabod and Katrina say to each other after the party.) But each person and place are richly described it’s easier to picture them after only a sentence or two.

However, there are twists and motivations most people don’t expect. Brom, it seems, actually does love Katrina. (His pranks are more mischievous than cruel.) Ichabod is a shameless social climber; he’s more interested in marrying Katrina for the Van Tassel family farm and fortune than out of love for the lady. The horseman is one of the great American specters. A Hessian (German mercenary) who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War, his head was shot off by a cannonball during an “unnamed battle.” It’s said he leaves the Old Dutch Cemetery at night to look for his head, but must hurry back to reach his grave before dawn. And, despite most adaptations portraying the horseman as a genuine ghost, it’s heavily inferred in the story that the rider Ichabod encounters is actually Brom in disguise. (In the epilogue, the narrator bemoans how the ‘old country wives’ maintain that the ghost was real and how that will probably be the history everyone knows.)

Well, that’s the story. So, how has it fared on screens of many sizes? Let’s take a look.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Disney, 1949)*

It’s been suggested on this blog that Walt Disney (and those who have kept his vision and outlook going), has done more to shape American culture over the last century than anyone else. I am not one to disagree. Like many people my age, I was actually introduced to this story while watching this version on the Disney Channel back in the 1980’s. And it seems to remain the most popular version of the tale.

For the most part, this version, despite a few liberties, is rather faithful to the story. The Ichabod-Brom-Katrina love triangle remains the heart of the tale. Bing Crosby does an expert and memorable job of narrating (he also provides all the male voices). It’s full of memorable music and songs. (While ‘Ichabod Crane’ is catchy, I’ve always preferred ‘Headless Horseman,’ which Brom sings at the harvest party.) And the chase sequence through Sleepy Hollow itself is one of the most amazing in animation history. The animation is classic Disney for the time. Though not as lavish as Snow White or Fantasia, it’s very reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. (It seems to have a strong feel of the art work of Disney artist Mary Blair, best known for the Disney short Sleigh Ride and the children figures at ‘It’s A Small World.’) It’s also a popular belief that Katrina may have been an early model for Cinderella.
Ichabod: In the stylized animation, Ichabod keeps his scarecrow-esque dimensions. (“His head was small and flat on top, with a long-snipe nose so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck.”) He also keeps many of his lesser-known traits- romancing the ladies, being mindful of the pupils whose families will give him room and board for the week, and is shown leading choir practice. However, his less desirable trait of greed for Katrina’s father’s farm- the road to easy street- is also on full display. In an odd move for a Disney cartoon, we end up with a very unlikable ‘hero’ figure.
The Headless Horseman: Though some say the original story’s ending can still apply, I disagree. Here, the horseman is clearly an apparition. He storms onto the scene following Ichabod’s wonderfully creepy ride through Sleepy Hollow, where trees, bugs, branches, and shadows form ghouls in every direction. Silhouetted against either fiery red or eerie blue backdrops, the horseman feels like a force of nature released from a demonic netherworld to terrify anyone foolish enough to travel through Sleepy Hollow at night.
Trivia: Not only is the Horseman considered one of the scariest Disney villains, he’s actually the only one to win in the end. (Pinocchio’s villains come close, though they really just get their comeuppance.)

*- (originally released as the second part of “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.”)
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (NBC, 1980)

The problem with short stories like ‘Sleepy Hollow’ is that they aren’t good material for full-length movies. (The Disney version, for instance, is only a half-hour long.) So, filmmakers inevitably pad out the original tale by adding all kinds of subplots and new characters. That is the best way to describe this made-for-TV treatment.

According to my research, this film was shot in Utah, apparently during the winter since there’s always several inches of snow on the ground. (Oh, I don’t need to think about that right now.) It was clearly made on a TV budget, with most of the money going into sets and little- if any- into special effects. (Hence the horseman’s tiny, cameo-ish role.) The many subplots include: a local elder, Fritz Vanderhoof (John Sylvester White), trying to set up Ichabod with his widowed daughter, Thelma (Laura Campbell); Ichabod being ‘haunted’ by former schoolmaster Winthrop Palmer (Michael Ruud) ,who was allegedly killed by the Horseman; and Squire Van Tassel (James Griffith) constantly having to decide who he wants to order Katrina to marry.

Surprisingly, former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus does fairly well as Brom Bones. (He studied acting and Shakespeare after his playing days.) Brom is actually much crueler towards Ichabod here, with his pranks meant to frighten Ichabod out of town rather than just poke fun at him. (He actually plans to kill Ichabod by pretending to be the Horseman.)

And, IMO, Meg Foster is just plain wasted as Katrina. She doesn’t have enough screen time. (Full movie on Youtube HERE.)
Ichabod: Here, we he get Jeff Goldblum (age 28) in the role. He seems a little uneasy at times, maybe because he’s just at the start of his career. (The Fly was still six years away.) He does, however, look a LOT like the literary character.

The big change is that this Ichabod is a skeptic towards ghosts. (The story version of Ichabod is a believer in all things supernatural.) Eventually, after experiencing some supposedly ghostly events (Brom’s pranks), and encountering Palmer (who didn’t really die), Ichabod feels his sanity slipping away. By the end, however, he decides to keep an open mind and is allowed to court Katrina.
The Horseman: A mostly forgettable version of the character. Look, I know there was a budget, but…wow. The horseman appears as Brom (disguised at the Horseman) tries to force Ichabod into the river. The horseman’s appearance forces Brom to reveal himself and run off. We barely see the horseman (probably to hide the shoulder pads worn by the stuntman), and his jack-o-lantern ‘head’ is a little obvious. On that note, it’s probably best that we see so little of him in this one. He is, however, inferred to be an actual ghost.
Sleepy Hollow (Paramount, 1999)

‘Sleepy Hollow’ adaptations are hard to come by. And if I didn’t want another example for this article, I probably would’ve stopped watching this thing 20 minutes in. It’s just a mess.

If you’re looking for Irving’s story, you’ve come to the wrong place. This is a detective-searching-for-a-serial-killer slasher flick. (Small wonder. The writer also worked on HBO’s Tales From the Crypt and wrote the screenplay for Se7en.) Tim Burton brings in his usual stable of players- Christopher Lee, Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gough, etc. And like the 1980 version, this feature adds a LOT to make the story feature-length. To that end, we get the hardly unexpected ‘small town hiding a big secret’ motif, a witch, vicious anti-Christian themes, martial arts action sequences, (I don’t recall ninjitsu being popular in post-colonial New York), and numerous exposition scenes. Burton said he wanted to create the feel of Hammer Studios and Italian horror movies. I can’t speak for the Italian style, (why do hipsters love that stuff so much?), but I fail to see the Hammer connection- those films are colorful; this one is gray. I also get the feel that Burton doesn’t like the original story. Like Peter Jackson with The Hobbit, he almost seems annoyed when he has to reference the actual tale, preferring to focus on his added stuff. Brom (Casper Van Diem), for instance, is reduced to redshirt status.
Ichabod: Johnny Depp is, well, Johnny Depp. This time, he’s an NYC constable sent to Sleepy to investigate a bunch of murders. Like the 1980 version, he’s a skeptic towards ghosts, (until he sees the horseman and completely changes). In keeping with Burton’s ‘weird for the sake of weird’ style, he uses steampunk scientific tools and acts quirky. Nothing special here. Oh, and his relationship with Katrina is very uncomfortable given that Christina Ricci’s outfit makes her (and her forehead) look like a 12-year-old.
The Horseman: HiIamChristopherWalkendaheadlessguyindismovie. An uncredited Christopher Walken plays the ghoul this time, at least in the flashback sequence and at the end, when you see his head. (Ray Park handled most of the headless duties.) Adding the trademark Burton touch of weirdness, the Horseman had his teeth sharpened into fangs when he was alive to look more fearsome. Sigh…

There is one good note to this Horseman. The filmmakers use CGI well here, giving the first horseman whose actor isn’t hiding his head inside the costume. At least it looks good presentable.
Well, there’s some of the adaptations of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ What do you think of these three? Are there some I missed and you want to mention? I open the floor!


Kit said...

On Tim Burton's Legend of Sleepy Hollow, even if it does not follow the story aside from the name of the town and a few principle characters and has many of the typical Burton clichés (hypocritical Christians and an oppressive small town) has a hell of a score from Danny Elfman: "Introduction"

Jim said...

I remember hearing the audio version from the "Namesake" audio series, where famous books were read by a celebrity with the same last name as the author. This one was read by "Dr. J", though, which really didn't make sense with the series...

Koshcat said...

Great discussion. I think I read the story when I was in high school but most of my memories are from the Disney version and is still my favorite. I never saw the TV version but did see the movie. It was...forgettable.

PikeBishop said...

TV Version. Meg Foster in her prime! Hubba!

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Thanks for the article! A great start to the series!

I will say that I do kind of like Sleepy Hollow. It is a mess, but I see a lot of potential. It's just never quite realized.

The version I grew up with, by the way, came from a Scooy Doo episode! LOL!

Kit said...


I think Burton's Sleepy Hollow has a good, Halloween atmosphere in it.

Rustbelt said...

Sorry I'm late, guys. New work schedule.

Kit, The cliches were so bad and obvious that I almost turned it off several times. I'll agree with you that Elfman's score and the atmosphere are well done. (Though I think Burton fails at re-creating the feel of a Hammer film, like he intended.)
But that's the problem. Burton was so worried about the feel that he completely forgot to have a good story. It just seems so lazy. He really needs his own Gary Kurtz.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, I'm glad you're enjoying it so far! (I had hoped to come out swinging :)

Burton's DOES have potential, given the feel, though I honestly think it looks too gray overall.

I can't recall the Scooby Doo episode off-hand. Which is weird, since I was a Scooby Doo nut as a kid. BTW, the Horseman also made an appearance in an episode of the Real Ghostbusters. (An NYPD detective accuses them of setting the ghost loose to get people to buy their ghost insurance!)

Rustbelt said...

Jim, I heard a spoken version in fifth grade. (On an LP, no less!) This one was narrated by Bela Lugosi. (Makes a little more sense than Dr. J.) Not sure if it was part of that particular series, though.

Rustbelt said...

Koshcat, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

I'm also a huge fan of the Disney version. It's been a staple of Halloween for me ever since I was a little kid. It's the stuff that terrific Halloween specials are made of. It's sad that the story has been de-emphasized in modern culture and that there are kids growing up who have never hard of Ichabod Crane or Sleepy Hollow.

Rustbelt said...

PikeBishop, Meg Foster could steal your soul with those eyes of hers and you'd be thanking her for it!

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Right here ==>Click Me

Rustbelt said...

Thanks, Andrew! I'll be sure to let you know what I think.

And since one good turn deserves another, HERE'S the RGB episode featuring the Horseman.

ScottDS said...

Sorry I'm late!

I've only seen the Burton version. It's been a while but I remember liking it but it gets a bit convoluted at the end, no doubt the result (as you said) of expanding a short story to feature-length.

The film had two writers: Andrew Kevin Walker who wrote Se7en, and Kevin Yagher, who had worked on Tales from the Crypt, both as make-up/prosthetic guy and director.

I for one love Depp's steampunk gear and while Ricci does look too young for Depp, this movie simply proves she looks better with dark hair!

So "Gotham" was created by Washington Irving, huh? I find that oddly appropriate. :-)

Rustbelt said...

Scott, Depp's steampunk glasses were a facepalm moment for me. All right, all right, Burton! I get it! Weird! You're weird! Oh...

You're absolutely right about Ricci, though. And, you know, I'm the last guy to talk about looks. But, at the risk conjuring up the image of Andrew's #1 non-favorite 'actress,' could Ricci try some bangs one of these days and cover up that thunderdome of hers?

And, yes, Gotham and Irving go together very well.

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