Tim Burton may have developed his trademark style with Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, but I have always thought that Sleepy Hollow is the most masterful expression of his style as well as the common themes of his work. It is almost a perfect fantasy movie, with the one flaw being that Christina Ricci is a bit miscast as the daughter of a wealthy 18th-century New England family.
The hamlet of Sleepy Hollow was built from scratch in England and was at the time the biggest outdoor set ever created for a film. The western woods, where the headless horseman dwells, was completely built in an indoor soundstage so the very atmospheric weather could be controlled, and the fake trees were all molded to give them a forboding appearance. The production designer, Rick Heinrichs, said that walking around the sets was like walking around inside Tim Burton’s head, and it certainly looks like it. The production design is marvelous, and coupled with beautiful and very detailed costumes by regular Burton collaborator Colleen Atwood, make this the most stylized horror movie since Neil Jordan’s In The Company of Wolves.
When Johnny Depp’s Icabod Crane follows a cave-dwelling witch’s instructions to “The Tree of the Dead” and he determines that “this tree is a gateway, a gateway between two worlds,” this one line of dialogue summarizes the main theme of all of Burton’s work. It is more obvious in films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, where the parallel worlds of Halloween and Christmas get temporarily mixed up, and Corpse Bride, in which there is an “upstairs” for the living and a “downstairs” for the dead. But it is also a less obvious theme in his other films, such as when the world of Ed Wood, “the worst director of all time,” collides with the world of Orson Welles, “the greatest director of all time,” when the two men meet by chance at a bar.