Sleepy Hollow (1999) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

The new episode of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie looks back at Tim Burton’s 1999 film Sleepy Hollow, starring Johnny Depp

The Sleepy Hollow episode of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? was Written by Ric Solomon, Narrated by Travis Hopson, Edited by Victoria Verduzco, Produced by Andrew Hatfield and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

Back in 1820, author Washington Irving created a short story entitled The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It brought to life the haunting character of The Headless Horseman. This legendary tale would become the stuff of nightmares and scare people of all ages. So what was the next best thing to do? That’s right…adapt it into a movie! And not just any movie… we’re talking about Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (Record Scratch)…Sorry I meant Tim Burton’s 1999 Horror film Sleepy Hollow (watch it HERE). Of all the adaptations to release, this one is the perfect version. So why and how did this get made? And how on Earth did Tim Burton end up directing this gothic masterpiece? Let’s find out on WTF Happened To This Horror Movie.

In 1993, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker developed a script based on Washington’s short story. The script caught the attention of producer Scott Rudin. Rudin optioned the project to Paramount Pictures with Kevin Yagher, a make-up effects designer and part adapter of the screenplay, to direct the picture. Paramount disagreed and demoted Yagher’s involvement to prosthetic makeup designer.

Jump forward to 1998, Paramount’s then CEO Sherry Lansing revived the interest in bringing Sleepy Hollow to life. Adam Schroeder, a movie producer, had shepherded Burton’s classic Edward Scissorhands, and said he was perfect for the job. Burton, after coming off the troubled production of Superman Lives, was hired to direct the film. Tim Burton has often been drawn to dark and fantastical stories, and his unique visual style has made him a prominent filmmaker in the realm of gothic and macabre cinema. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” had always intrigued Burton due to its blend of horror, mystery, and folklore. He was particularly interested in exploring the Headless Horseman character and the eerie atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow. Burton would go on to say that Sleepy Hollow is a homage to Hammer Film Productions such as Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Jason and the Argonauts and Scream Blacula Scream.

Tim brought Andrew Kevin Walker to work on the rewrites of the script, but Scott Rudin would suggest that Tom Stoppard rewrite the script to add to the comical aspects of Ichabod’s mannerisms and emphasize the character’s romance more.

Sleepy Hollow (1999) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Now onto casting. As we’ve all come to know, Johnny Depp is Tim’s first choice as a male lead, and as so, he was the man! Paramount begged Tim to consider others such as Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson and Daniel Day Lewis. Burton only wanted Johnny, and this would be their third collaboration together. After reading Stoppard’s rewrites, Johnny wanted to change Ichabod’s character and make him a delicate and fragile person. He didn’t want Ichabod to be some action star swooping into town to save the day. The rest of the cast included, Jeffery Jones, Christopher Walken, Martin Landau, Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon and Miranda Richardson.

In regard to filming, the production’s budget was $30 million and was to predominantly be shot in England. That’s where Burton shot Batman, and he agreed to film there. Production began on November 20, 1998, at Leavesden Film Studios, which had just wrapped production on Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Most of the production took place here, but filming for the massive Tree of the Dead set was shot at Shepperton Studios. Production then moved to the Culden Faw Estate, Hambleden, for a month-long shoot in March of 1999. The town of Sleepy Hollow was constructed there. Filming continued through April and some last minute scenes were shot unsing a sound stage in Yonkers, New York in May.

Tim Burton’s distinct visual style was brought to life through elaborate production design, gothic costumes, and atmospheric lighting. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki worked closely with Burton to capture the film’s dark and eerie ambiance. Production Design was done by Rick Heinrichs who helped created the supernatural feel to the film. Heinrichs was also influenced by American colonial architecture, German Expressionism and Dr. Seuss illustrations.

One sound stage at Leavesden was dedicated to the Forest to the Field set. This scene is where the Headless Horseman races out of the woods and into a field. This stage then was transformed into a graveyard, corn fields, a churchyard, and a snowy battlefield. I guess you can say they got their money’s worth with this sound stage.

When time came for post-production, Industrial Light & Magic would take the helm. There were 150 visual effects that the team was involved with, while Kevin Yagher would supervise the human and creature effects. Framestore also assisted on the visual effects and The Mill handled motion control photography. Burton opted to use as limited a number of digital effects as possible. For the headless horsemen digital effects to work, stuntman Ray Park wore a blue ski mask for chroma key effect so ILM could digitally remove his head. Burton worked with editor Chris Lebenzon to shape the final narrative and pacing of the film. They crafted the tense and atmospheric tone, balancing horror, mystery, and dark humor. The film’s sound design played a crucial role in creating a haunting atmosphere and Danny Elfman composed the score, which added depth and emotion to the scenes.

Sleepy Hollow (1999) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

The plot of Sleepy Hollow is set in the late 18th century and follows Ichabod Crane, a New York City constable with progressive investigative methods. Crane is sent to the secluded town of Sleepy Hollow, where a series of mysterious decapitations have terrorized the community. The victims are believed to have been slain by the legendary Headless Horseman. Crane, a skeptic who believes in scientific reasoning, becomes embroiled in the superstitious world of Sleepy Hollow. As he delves deeper into the case, he meets Katrina Van Tassel, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy local family, and develops feelings for her. Crane’s investigation leads him to uncover dark secrets, hidden identities, and a web of betrayal within the town. As he encounters the ghostly Headless Horseman and witnesses his relentless pursuit, Crane struggles to solve the mystery and bring justice to Sleepy Hollow.

Sleepy Hollow was released on November 17,1999 in the year most people say is the greatest year for movies. The film was a commercial success, grossing over $206 million worldwide against a production budget of around $100 million. It performed well at the box office, appealing to audiences with its blend of horror, mystery, and Tim Burton’s distinct visual style. The film received favorable reviews from critics, who praised its visuals, performances, and Burton’s direction. Some critics have pointed out that the film relies heavily on its visuals and style, sometimes at the expense of a more compelling narrative. However, opinions on films are subjective, and different individuals may have varying tastes and preferences. The atmospheric gothic aesthetic and dark humor resonated with many reviewers. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Ichabod Crane was particularly acclaimed for its quirky and eccentric charm. It was also well-received by audiences, with many embracing its mix of horror, fantasy, and dark comedy. The film’s distinctive visual style and Burton’s unique storytelling appealed to his fan base and attracted new viewers.

Sleepy Hollow received recognition during the awards season. It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Art Direction (which it won), Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design. The film’s visually stunning production design, intricate costumes, and atmospheric cinematography were widely acknowledged. The film was also nominated for three BAFTA awards and winning two for Best Production Design as well as Best Costume Design. It was a favorite at the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards winning for Favorite Actor, Actress and Favorite Supporting Actress as well.

Sleepy Hollow (1999) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Paramount Home Video released Sleepy Hollow on DVD and VHS on May 23, 2000. Before Blu-ray was the choice for high-definition home media, Paramount would get caught in the craze of HD DVD and released it on this format in 2006. Paramount came to their senses and would release film on Blu-ray in 2008. For its 20th Anniversary, Paramount released a Blu-ray digibook with a photobook containing the original story on September 24, 2019. And because this is such a beloved and celebrated film, on September 5, 2023, Paramount will release the film on 4K as well as a separate 4K steel book. As you can see, there are many ways to view this film in both standard and high-definition format. Or, if that isn’t important to you, there’s always streaming services to choose from.

Over the years, Sleepy Hollow has maintained a strong following and continues to be appreciated for its atmospheric visuals, memorable characters, and gothic tone. It has become a cult favorite among fans of Tim Burton’s work and gothic horror. It’s one of my favorite films by the expert director. If you grew up in the 90’s, you’d absolutely put Tim at the top of your list as one of the best directors. While it may not be Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands, it’s certainly one of Tim’s best, especially in the horror genre and continues to be a fan favorite over 20 years later.

Unfortunately, Paramount is in the works of rebooting the classic film with Lindsey Beer both writing and directing it. Will this reboot prove to be as good as Tim’s gothic horror movie? Will Johnny Depp’s replacement have the same charisma? Will Christina Ricci play a legacy character? Only time will tell.

In summary, Sleepy Hollow was both a commercial success and received positive reviews. Its visually striking production design, captivating performances, and Burton’s distinct directorial style contributed to its enduring popularity among audiences and solidified its place as a notable entry in Tim Burton’s filmography.

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.