Face-Off: Sleepy Hollow vs. From Hell

With Tim Burton's MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN set to come out this weekend, the idea was to have something Burton-related in this week's Face-Off, which led to his 1999 film SLEEPY HOLLOW. A twist on Washington Irving's classic tale, this movie re-imagined schoolmaster Ichabod Crane as a detective played by Johnny Depp. Tracking a killer in the past obviously appealed to Depp, because he was back at it again two years later in the film chosen to go up against SLEEPY HOLLOW, the Hughes Brothers' FROM HELL. These films stood out as Face-Off material due to the similarities they share, so let's see how it goes down when Depp takes on Depp and the Headless Horseman battles with Jack the Ripper.
New York, 1799. When three people are decapitated in the small farming community of Sleepy Hollow, NYC constable Ichabod Crane is sent to investigate. To solve the case, Crane has to delve into legends of a Headless Horseman and dabble in witchcraft, all while residents continue losing their heads all around him. There are many differences between this film and the original Washington Irving story, which simply consisted of meek schoolmaster Ichabod Crane being told the legend of the Headless Horseman and then being chased by such a figure on his way home.
London, 1888. When multiple prostitutes start turning up murdered and mutilated, Inspector Frederick Abberline is put on the case. The film is loosely based on an Alan Moore graphic novel, which in turn was a fictionalized account of the Jack the Ripper slayings that delved into one of the many theories of that killer's identity. FROM HELL gives direct answers to the questions of who the Ripper was, exactly why he chose his specific victims, and why his killing spree ended when it did. It's an interesting take, but the conspiracy theory here has been discredited.
Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane is a man ahead of his time, an advocate of using up-to-date scientific methods to investigate crimes. There's also a duality to his character - he's a determined crimestopper who doesn't hesitate to stand up to his superiors and speak out against their methods, but he also retains some of his literary counterpart's cowardice, for example shaking uncontrollably while listening to a ghost story. This can seem odd, but I guess the fact that he pushes through his fears is true bravery. This Crane is also given a back story involving his mother, who was accused of witchcraft.
Johnny Depp's Frederick Abberline could be seen as a dashing, heroic figure, if not for his drug and alcohol issues. In his down time, Abberline likes to self-medicate with absinthe and/or opium - when he drinks, he has flashbacks to the wife that he tragically lost, when he's "chasing the dragon" he has visions of the future, specifically of murders being committed in London. The character is an amalgamation of a cop who really worked the Ripper case and a psychic who was also involved. Abberline's a good guy and a determined investigator, but he needs to get his head together.
In life, the Headless Horseman was a Hessian mercenary who thrived on murder and carnage up until the day he was decapitated. Death has only made him more capable. He tears through Sleepy Hollow as a badass supernatural force, a horse-riding slasher who has no problem getting around without a head, wielding blades and claiming the heads of men, women, and children.
Dressed in a cloak and top hat, Jack the Ripper is a striking figure when seen on the streets of London, and the killer is presented in a very creepy way here. He's a deep voiced manipulator when his identity is being withheld and a totally around the bend lunatic when we know who he is and see him in action. The mentality and motivation they gave him makes him an intriguing character.
Crane rather quickly falls for Christina Ricci's Katrina Van Tassel, a Sleepy Hollow local who accompanies him into dangerous territory and supports his investigation... until she doesn't like the answers he comes up with. Secretly a witch, Katrina knows some spells, but ultimately becomes a damsel in distress and a coach driver while Ichabod handles the action, making her somewhat of a disappointing character.
Heather Graham may not be the first actress who comes to mind when you think of someone to play an Irish woman in the 19th century, but she does a decent job in the role of tough-talking prostitute Mary Kelly, who develops a romantic relationship with Abberline as she aids him in the investigation of her friends' murders. The accent may not be top-notch, but Graham makes Mary a likeable character you come to care for.
In addition to gathering clues from comments made by Sleepy Hollow residents and things they've written down in books, Crane also practices what he preaches, using the latest science to check crime scenes and corpses - a method that includes using goofy-looking magnifying lenses and strange chemicals. He even performs autopsies, the heathen. Forensic science does eventually lead Crane to the person responsible.
Abberline is a skilled investigator who sees patterns that others overlook, knows a clue when he hears one, and can perfectly read a crime scene. Nothing will stand in the way of his detective work, he'll even break into the Special Branch offices to search through files. You may expect Abberline's visions to give him an unfair advantage, but they're not that helpful and could have been cut entirely. I wouldn't miss them.
SLEEPY HOLLOW and FROM HELL both have 8/10 reviews in our archives, and while trying to figure out a winner for this Face-Off I understood how they could both score the same. I found it impossible to pick one of these films over the other. Category winners were switched back and forth, at times SLEEPY HOLLOW won, at others FROM HELL won. FROM HELL might appeal to me slightly more overall, but ultimately I had to call it a tie. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, and they're both great movies.

Would you have more easily been able to pick one over the other? Share your thoughts on this double feature by leaving a comment below. If there's a Face-Off pairing you'd like to see in the future, you can send the suggestion to me at [email protected]. If your suggestion is used, there might even be a decisive winner!



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