Heads Up

In Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton keeps those noggins rollin’ rollin’ rollin’. American Movie documents fear and loathing in the no-budget screen trade.

Sleepy Hollow
Directed by
Tim Burton
Paramount Pictures

American Movie
Directed by
Chris Smith
Sony Pictures Classics

Sleepy Hollow is Tim Burton’s first full-gallop, Grand Guignol, gutbucket horror picture. He has always borrowed from the genre, but his scary motifs were leavened with homey ones–with elements inspired by cartoons, Dr. Seuss, and tacky Japanese giant-monster flicks. Burton’s early creatures, however fantastic, had a sadly mundane aura, like the ghosts in Beetlejuice (1988) who looked so silly in their designer sheets that they couldn’t even frighten a child. In his new movie, a ghost not only frightens a child, it beheads him. Burton’s take on Washington Irving’s legendary headless horseman is one of the great nightmare images in movies. Our first glimpse is over his shoulder as he hurtles through the woods after a fleeing servant. We hear the scrape of a sword as it’s unsheathed and barely see it sweep across the frame and pop the victim’s noggin into the air–so fast that the head seems to have been shocked off its torso. The carnage ends before we can exhale.

Burton’s imagery has an ecstatic intensity; it’s too bad that the movie–loosely based on the Irving classic about a ghost who haunts New York’s Hudson Valley in the decades after the American Revolution–has been constructed as a sort of proto-Hound of the Baskervilles. In the screenplay, credited to Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven, 1995) but reportedly rewritten by Tom Stoppard, the schoolteacher Ichabod Crane is now a New York City constable (Johnny Depp) who travels upstate to solve a series of beheadings using the fledgling sciences of pathology and deduction. The idea is that Crane clings to scientific principle in the face of the supernatural–he dumbfounds the locals by insisting that the killer is human and appalls them by performing an autopsy on a female victim. (I was looking forward to the first thriller in ages without yucko autopsies, but there’s no dodging them these days.) It soon becomes apparent that solving the mystery will require a blend of reason and superstition–a mighty stretch for a young man whose life is pledged to rationalism and whose unconscious roils with visions of his free-spirited mother (Lisa Marie) being brutalized by a “Bible-black tyrant” of a father. The script, a bare-bones affair with amusingly movieish period diction (“What manner of instruments are these?”), mixes bargain-basement Freudianism with less whodunit savvy than an average episode of Murder, She Wrote.

But you don’t go to a Tim Burton picture for the narrative riches; you go because no one else packs this kind of emotion into a movie’s design. Sleepy Hollow is a ferocious yet lyrical piece of filmmaking–an enchanted bloodbath. In Ichabod’s fever dream, his mother levitates and twirls amid snowy blossoms, and all Burton’s feeling for his paramour, Lisa Marie, comes through–he paints her as the most vulnerable of spellcasters. You know from the start you’re in a grand playpen for horror buffs–full of mists, covered bridges, glowing pumpkin-head scarecrows, black oaks that seem frozen in death throes. In the haunted western woods, Crane and his juvenile assistant (Marc Pickering, who resembles a young Burton) tromp over dead leaves while above them the bare trees bend together at their tops like Gothic arches.

The great production designer Rick Heinrichs has built an 18th-century village from the ground up. His palette (and that of the costume designer, Colleen Atwood) is white on ash, gray on dusty brown, ebony on bone–the better to set off the lurid splashes of crimson. Ichabod Crane walks through small doorways into dark-toned rooms where pasty old men in white wigs stare at him balefully and whisper in one another’s ears, their bloated waistcoats jiggling. When Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), the town’s richest citizen, intones the story of the Hessian who lopped the heads off revolutionaries for sheer love of butchery, the flashback is mythic in its ghastliness: Christopher Walken–his hair swept up, with boiled eggs for eyes and teeth like sharp spikes–wheels, hacks, impales, and drenches the snow with gore. He’s the only warrior I’ve seen in a movie who does justice to Macbeth’s terrible “whiles I see lives, the gashes/ Do better upon them”.

Burton has learned a lot about staging and editing action since the relatively crude martial-arts battles of Batman (1989). The horseman is like a samurai Terminator; dismounted, he comes at his victims relentlessly, from all angles. (I don’t know if Walken also plays the horseman sans head; if he doesn’t, someone has done a hilarious job of recreating his chesty swagger.) Visually and aurally, the attack scenes are built: Leaves rustle, torches go out in curly wisps of smoke, hoofbeats start softly and end up pounding your head. (Danny Elfman’s crashing gongs and chopping-blade strings pound your head, too.) The comic touches deepen the horror. In the first killing Ichabod witnesses, the victim’s head doesn’t just fly off–it spins like a dervish and bounces between Ichabod’s legs, where the passing horseman skewers it like a marshmallow. As he thunders off, he knocks a small scarecrow, which spins around–the perfect “button” for the sequence. Then Ichabod keels over in a dead faint.

This is Depp’s most ingratiating performance, a marvelous blend of passion and parody. His Ichabod is a little boy making like Basil Rathbone. Puffed-up with conceit, he takes in a new piece of evidence by raising his eyebrows, expelling a “hmmm,” and spinning around to announce his latest theory to locals who regard him with a mixture of awe and embarrassment. Burton relishes squirting blood in this know-it-all’s face: Ichabod is the movie’s dashing hero and also the butt of its jokes. Depp and Christina Ricci, as Von Tassel’s witchy daughter, are everything you could hope for in a storybook couple. It’s too bad Ricci’s dry, flat voice–so wonderful in modern comedies, when it plays against those saucer eyes and angel-baby features–sounds amateurish amid all these declamatory Brits.

Burton’s work in Sleepy Hollow is transporting, but not, it should be said, to the Hudson Valley circa 1799. We’re actually in England circa the late 1950s and the ‘60s, when a studio called Hammer Films was churning out cheap but ritzy-looking Gothic melodramas. In all of them, scenes of repressive formality (hoary English actors sipping sherry in drawing rooms) would be shattered by scenes of Dionysian release (Dracula or some other fanged entity swooping down in an animalistic frenzy), and an aristocratic figure of both science and Christian faith–usually the crisply self-satisfied Peter Cushing–would show up to lecture the frightened villagers and pound a stake through the heaving bosom of some temptress. Cushing, alas, is gone, but Burton has cast Hammer stalwarts Christopher Lee in a (too brief) cameo as the burgomaster who dispatches Crane to Sleepy Hollow and Michael Gough (also seen as Alfred in the Batman films) as a one-eyed accountant. He has duplicated some memorable Hammer compositions and has gotten the tone of those old pictures just right. Like Burton, I was weaned on Hammer horror; I raise a goblet of blood to him for bringing it all so blissfully back.

M any people who go see the documentary American Movie, directed by Chris Smith and produced by Sarah Price, will expect to revisit the title character of Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), a stumblebum who maintained a cockeyed optimism–and obliviousness–in the face of infinitesimal budgets and what amounted to an anti-talent for continuity. But the film, the story of a 30-year-old Wisconsin would-be moviemaker named Mark Borchardt and his efforts to finish a no-budget horror short called Coven (which he mispronounces throughout, with a long “o”), turns into something much fuller–and much less easy to laugh off. For one thing, its protagonist isn’t oblivious. He has a surfeit of self-loathing, disparaging his work even as he struggles to get it on screen. In debt and with a couple of kids to support, juggling jobs as a cemetery custodian and a paper boy, Borchardt oscillates between a tendency to “drink and dream” and a drive to “create and compete.” With an extended family that regards him–not apparently without reason–as a dreamer and a bull artist, Borchardt sometimes comes off like God’s loneliest man.

The documentary begins with his attempt to cast a feature called Northwestern, which seems meant as a cri de coeur for a generation of Midwestern druggies. When he can’t raise the money and concludes, “Aesthetically, I’m not ready,” Borchardt hauls the abandoned Coven out of mothballs in spite of its “stilted” performances and sets about the seemingly impossible task of raising money to finish it. Most of those funds will come from Borchardt’s elderly and skeletal uncle, Bill, who lives in a ramshackle trailer but has evidently managed to sock away hundreds of thousands of dollars. The attempt to wheedle money out of the caustic and not-quite-there old man is the real glory of American Movie. As Borchardt shows Bill pictures of pretty actresses, offers him a credit as an “executive producer,” buys him booze, and promises big profits and glory down the road (“I see great cinema in this.” “Cinnamon?”), their relationship becomes a bleak, absurdist parody of all artists and their moneymen. And yet, somehow, it ends warmly–even beautifully–for both.

As I watched American Movie, a lot of it struck me as untranscendent misery. But in hindsight it seems less hopeless. That might be because Smith and Price’s smart and compassionate work has given Borchardt and his cohorts a measure of celebrity, which removes the sting of nonentity-ness. (Fans who visit the American Movie Web site will find such features as Borchardt’s daily diary and a phone number for his buddy Mike Schank, a lovable PCP casualty and talented musician–“If he’s home and in the mood he’ll pick up.” Ain’t the Internet grand?) The vision may also seem less grim because when Coven finally premieres, at the end of American Movie, the images we’re shown from it have a certain George Romero-ish graphic power–not at all what we expect from the comically inept production process. Without seeing his work all the way through, it’s hard for me to say whether Borchardt has talent, but he might not be such a stumblebum after all.

Already, in the three years since this documentary was shot, digital technology has made moviemaking at this level more affordable–which means that the road for impoverished filmmakers like Borchardt will soon be less grueling. But there will be a lot–a lot–more of them. American Movie suggests that there’s no such thing as “the little people in the hinterlands” anymore. The American Dream has become making movies. If American Movie is a hit, the American Dream might become making movies about the American Dream of making movies.