March 2003

Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy HollowIn 1799, Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent from New York to the rural village of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders in which all of the victims are beheaded – and the heads are missing.

Ichabod Crane is a man of science and a proponent of pathology. It is this obsession with new-fangled methods that led to his being sent to Sleepy Hollow – it gets him out of his superiors’ hair. Of course, he fails to fit in straight away – his otherworldly manner and insistence that out of hand dismissal of any possible supernatural origin immediately alienates him from the local community and leaves him at a huge disadvantage when he finds himself entangled in the deadly conspiracy that makes up the politics of the town.

But once the true nature of the murderer becomes apparent, Crane throws himself into the new mystery with gusto, determined to apply the same logical methods to resolve the unanswered questions.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a classic ghost story and Tim Burton’s darkly comic take is both richly in atmospheric and visually stunning with colours so washed out as to be almost black and white, giving the film a feel reminiscent of early the Hammer films.

In fact, if Sleepy Hollow had been relocated to some unspecified Central European country, Burton could have been accused of re-imaging the Hammer oeuvre before the word had gained any currency.

Gothic sets, superstitious peasants, restrained passion – it’s all here. And not only are there tropes aplenty, they are treated with a respect and understanding that reveal a deep affection for the studio and the sub-genre it spawned.

In this light, Ichabod Crane can be seen as the Hammeresque wealthy (English) traveller, dismissing the locals’ warnings as superstitious nonsense until he is no longer able to avoid the truth. And then, pausing only to stiffen his upper lip, he makes it his mission to fully understand the nature of the menace terrorising the community.

The supporting cast is uniformly superb – I’d probably be labouring the Hammer comparison a bit to point out the sizable British contingent in this film, so I won’t. My only gripe is that I would have liked to have seen more of them.

Miranda Richardson, as the stepmother and the town’s conspirators could have made a lot of enjoyable use of some extra screen time, as could Christopher Walken as the superbly deranged Hessian horseman although I imagine it would have been quite difficult to justify showing more of him.

Kudos too, to Danny Elfman whose score perfectly complements the gothic atmosphere of the film.

Planet of the Apes notwithstanding, Tim Burton is a superbly visual director and Sleepy Hollow is a wonderful tribute to the Hammer films that so warped me in my youth.

The Tenement

The Tenement

Do you believe a house… a building can be inherently evil?
This place draws evil.

Neatly avoiding the problem that many horror films suffer of too much padding and/or excessive gore, The Tenement is a collection of four short films based around the common theme that the tenement in question is itself inherently evil.

The film starts with a conversation between former resident Ethan Fernier (Pete Barker) and the owner of the block, from which the quote at the start of this review is taken. Ethan, it turns out, was a resident of the apartment block abut 20 years ago… when the murders started.

After a brief hiatus, involving a rather twisted take on the traditional Christian view of death and resurrection, we jump back 20 years to see Ethan’s story unfold.

The young Ethan (Joe Lauria), it turns out, is not the happiest of people. Still living with his overbearing and bedridden mother and haunted by his dead sister he finds his escape through obsessively watching horror films – especially the low budget slashers of one Winston Korman.

Digressing slightly – writer/director Glen Baisley really does wear his influences on his sleeve in this film. The Tenement is packed with references - some subtle, some less so - to directors from Corman to Hitchcock and to films as diverse as Psycho, The Exorcist and Cherry Falls.

This is not to accuse the film of being derivative – it isn’t – and there is a rather neat double bluff going on in young Ethan’s story.

Back to the plot…

By day, Ethan works in a flower stall and - as luck would have it - all his dreams come true when he gets an order for a dozen black roses from none other than Winston Korman.

Excited beyond belief, Ethan takes it upon himself to personally deliver the flowers so that he can meet the great man.

Unfortunately for Ethan, Korman (Michael Gingold) is a rather unpleasant piece of work and manages to thoroughly humiliate the young flower seller in a superbly surreal scene in which young Ethan’s fragile psyche is shattered as he flees from the studio…

… to become Black Rose Killer.

Ethan’s story is a great piece of filmmaking, very effectively capturing the way in which Ethan goes to pieces and his first – not entirely competent – foray into serial murder.

We then jump forward ten years to 1990.

Sarah (Carol DiMarsico), a mute girl loves to dance to the music on the radio. Her neighbour, Henry (John Sudol) loves to watch – much to the concern of Sarah’s over protective father (Floyd Gumble).

Not too surprisingly Sarah eventually finds herself alone with Henry…

Of the four segments that make up the film, Sarah’s story is probably the weakest. For much of the time it looks very much like a very straightforward and rather nasty slasher story.

But the story ends with a very effective twist that more than redeems it.

And then it’s 1999 and time for the next tale which is a werewolf story… sort of.

Jimmy Wayne Garrick (Mike Lane) suffers from paranoia and the story opens with his first attempt to get out a bit more by joining a support group. Things go reasonably well for him at the group, but on his way home he is attacked by an animal.

Waking up the next morning and not entirely sure of what happened, Jimmy starts to convince himself that he was the victim of a werewolf attack and is therefore becoming a werewolf himself…

Jimmy’s story is a darkly comic tale of mental illness and dangerous delusions and his attempts to emulate wolf-like behaviour – his conscious mannerisms and constant posing - are both sad and funny.

And yet, the story also contains a suggestion, implicit rather than explicit, that maybe Jimmy’s change is not entirely in his mind. Maybe there is something going on beyond Jimmy’s delusions…

The final story doesn’t name the main character; a bogus taxi driver and serial killer whose victims tend to be young women.

Like Sarah’s story, this starts off looking very much like a very bog-standard slasher tale.

And like Sarahs story, this segment more than redeems itself at the end when the taxi driver finally meets the victim he didn’t bargain for…

While watching The Tenement I found myself reminded of Ju-On – the central idea of the building being the source of the evil as well as the use of separate stories to illustrate this are both familiar from the Japanese film.

Where The Tenement differs, however, is in the twisted nature of the stories. None of them end quite as expected and the film as a whole keeps you guessing right up to the end.

Although there are a few places where its ambitions exceed its budget, The Tenement is a film which tells a series of good stories with intelligent twists. It’s also a film that is well worth getting hold of.