It’s interesting to realize that despite Tim Burton’s affinity for the genre and his macabre worldview, Sleepy Hollow (1999) is the only one of the films he has made that qualifies as a straightforward horror film—at least to the degree that anything of Burton’s can be called straightforward. The story is grounded in the Washington Irving short story, but is considerably re-imagined with Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) presented as a “scientific” detective from New York City, who is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the decapitations of three of that town’s citizens—supposedly by the legendary Headless Horseman. At bottom, the film is really Burton’s tribute to the Hammer horror films—except that it outdoes the very films it salutes. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to call it the best movie Hammer never made.
Now, having said that, Sleepy Hollow is no simple homage. Not only does it also have elements that recall Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and a certain amount of Italian horror, but it’s every inch a Tim Burton picture. As in the echoes and references one finds to the Universal horror in his 1984 short film Frankenweenie, Burton less reproduces specific images from the Hammer films than by his own memory of those films. There’s little doubt that the windmill in Sleepy Hollow is drawn from Hammer’s Brides of Dracula (1960), or that the manner of Michael Gambon’s death is straight out of their Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). But they’re not exact, not academic in any sense—and they’re redefined in clearly Burton terms.
Burton doesn’t in the least skimp in making Sleepy Hollow a horror picture. All the elements are there. The ad campaign, “Heads will roll,” was no idle threat. Heads do indeed roll—quite a few of them, in fact—a lot of blood spurts. The Horseman is an imposing “monster,” too. But for all its horror trappings, Sleepy Hollow is never less than quirky in the Burton fashion. His particular sense of humor—and his personal obsessions—informs the entire film. So, yes, it is a horror film, but it’s a Tim Burton horror film. Make no mistake about that.