In this essay, I intend to explore several different aspects of ‘Sleep Hollow’, and how they create expectation in the audience. The film follows the horror genre. It cannot be forgotten that Tim Burton, the director of ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ also worked for Disney, and has persistently demonstrated a unique perspective on comedy, fantasy, and horror. He has created a very distinctive style. The story begins in 1799. It is set in and around New York, and in particular, the village of ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ where there has been a series of gruesome murders by decapitation.
Icabad Crane, (who in this adaptation is a police officer rather than a school teacher) is sent to solve the mystery. His rational world view is immediately challenged by the superstitions of those around him and he is slowly and reluctantly forced to accept the reality of the occult. Later, we learn his scientific morals are based upon the trauma of seeing his mother murdered by his father for being a Witch.
The plot involves Icabad solving the mystery of the headless horseman and exposing who is really behind the murders and their motives. When the opening credits begin, slow, mysterious Gothic sounding music introduces this Horror genre. A grey swirling mist surrounds the opening credits, against a black background. Here, the audience will probably realise what film genre this is. This music adds an element of mystery to the film, and returns in the scene where Icabad arrives in ‘Sleepy Hollow’ for the first time. There is a huge use of silence to create tension.
The speed and pitch of music differs a lot during scenes of action, to emphasize chaos. This mystery is introduced when we see a man writing a will. We never actually see his face. The red wax used to seal the envelope looks like, and symbolises blood. The fact that the man has a family coat of arms as a seal shows that his family is wealthy. From the very beginning, the film is almost monochromatic, and the only lighting is candle light, which makes the picture jerky, and produces an older feel to the film.
In the scene where the man is in a horse drawn carriage, it is mostly dark, but a light is discretely shone on the characters face, as he shows his fear and panic. The light is perhaps moonlight. This produces an unearthly glow. The villain’s sword sound is amplified as the driver is obviously, but not shown to be murdered, and blood is splattered across the pumpkin scare crow’s rounded face. This moment of death is emphasized by a flash of light, and a crack of thunder.
Storms are a typical cliche in the horror genre, and provide a sense of danger to audience. Burton uses sound effects cleverly by using commonly known to be dangerous/feared sounds and placing them in his scenes, to create familiar horror settings, and create tension in the audience. The setting then swaps to the Gothic looking torture chamber/prison with a peculiar misty light, similar to that of which was present in the opening titles, and in the forest.
This scene feels a lot more relaxed. Although it is still very dark, and full of torture devices, and characters with black clothes and pale faces, there is a feeling of safety in the court, as it is full of people, and law abiding judge and jury. The city is seen to be safe in contrast to the country. The lack of frightening music is to me the most important reason for this becoming a safer scene for the audience. They can relax. The tension was broken in the previous scene. It is mainly the music, sound effects, and fearful faces that get the audience’s heart beating faster, as they are useful devices to build tension.
In the courtroom scene when the judge mentions ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ the expressions on his and Icabad Crane’s faces become some how more mysterious, dark shadows are cast upon their faces. Even the mention of the town creates fear. The music here is eerie, and begins to create tension again, as the judge, played by Christopher Lee, explains the Crane’s mission. Christopher Lee is an iconic actor for playing “Dracula” in Hammer Horror movies, in Sleepy Hollow, as is in “Star Wars” (episodes II and III.) and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy he introduces a sinister, menacing aura and thus helps to convey to the audience what kind of film this is going to be. The close up shots and point of view shots and help us to identify with the main character Icabad Crane, as we see his facial expressions and body language more clearly, and know what he is thinking, by knowing what he is looking at.
In the next scene, where he releases a bird from a cage, we see the outside weather of the day. It is dull, and the film is still shot with a greyish tinge, maintaining the feeling of horror/depression. The red bird is the brightest colour seen. It seems that orange, as seen on the pumpkin scarecrow, and red, seen on the bird, wax (that symbolises blood,) and blood, are the dominating colours. They are even more noticeable than usual when the background is dull and grey. These predominant colours symbolise Halloween/horror, and death. These are key themes in the film.
I think that these colour usages are very effective. The scene then follows Crane travelling to Sleepy Hollow by horse and carriage. The long journey shows physical and metaphorical distance between city and country. This is also conveyed by the changes of scenery, although the main setting is a forest. As he travels, the music becomes more eerie, and there are constantly swaps of camera angles between medium shots, close ups, and high angle shots, that show the different landscapes, convey Crane’s thoughts, and the speed and distance at which he is travelling.
As it gets darker, the music begins to build up more tension. This eventually bursts out into loud, mysterious, almost adventurous music and abruptly we can see a black silhouette of the horse and carriage, against a shockingly dark blue sky. This is all seen from a long shot and in my opinion, is an excellent way to catch the audience attention, and get them prepared for the coming events. The difference between this shot, and the last is that this some how, feels bigger and more interesting. This is because the colours here are brighter, and the music is more adventurous.
In the next scene, Icabad arrives in Sleepy Hollow. In Contrast to the previous blue sky, everything is black, white, and grey. Burton’s use of colour owes much to the graphic comic book tradition, as can also be seen in his work on ‘Batman,’ which he directed. The music here is the same as it was at the very beginning, in the opening titles. It is mysterious, choral, slow, Gothic-sounding, and may produce a mysterious and unknown atmosphere for the audience. The audience can expect that this town is haunted and mysterious. This music helps add a feeling of anxiety, and suspense, along side the grey and misty set. These make Sleepy Hollow a bleak and desolate ghost town setting. Even a minute from watching this film, a view could workout what type of film it is. Those that know more about the actors and director could look at the opening credits, and immediately know a little about what to expect in the film.
The already mentioned actor, ‘Christopher Lee’ may create expectation in the audience even before watching. The use of ‘Johnny Depp’, who plays Icabad Crane, is a well known popular actor, and he will probably attract a big variety of people to the film, whether or not they are keen on its genre. There are usually high expectations from the audience with the use of these actors.
Even though the film follows the horror genre, it has some comedic elements. We see comedy when people are decapitated by the headless horseman, and special effects are used to makes there head spin round in a very unreal manner. This helps lighten the film slightly, and stops it from becoming too dreary, and too serious. Very occasional humour is used as comic relief, to break tension. Overall, the opening of ‘Sleepy Hollow’ creates expectation in the audience by creating fear, tension, mystery, and introducing the audience to a world that is visually and emotionally, a lot different to our own.