By Alan Hurst
Sleep Hollow and Dragonwyck are set about 50 years apart but they’re eerily effective in provoking the puritanical, malevolent mood of life along New York’s Hudson River in era’s long gone by. They both tell stories that are influenced by the supernatural and occult. They achieve their visual effects through atmospheric cinematography (one black and white, the other muted color) and detailed, evocative sets. And both provide an incredibly engrossing experience on a chilly October night.
There’s something enticing about the legends and history of the communities and mansions along the Hudson River. The backbreaking lives endured centuries ago, the darkness of the surrounding forests, and the harsh weather all lend themselves a Gothic atmosphere that only the movies can bring to life.
Gothic stories and films usually centre around a female character who, while not always a victim, is usually disadvantaged. That character is usually caught between the attention of two men – one good, and one you’re just not sure about. And the action usually takes place in a beautiful home or estate – giving the director lots of opportunity to leverage shadows, dark rooms, locked doors, and grand windows to better view the windswept and stormy nights. If the budget and creative freedom is there, these films also provide a field day for any design team.
Dragonwyck was Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ first film as a director after years as a producer and writer. The film received solid attention and reviews at the time of its 1946 release, but it now stands as one of the best examples of the gothic thriller/romance genre made during Hollywood’s golden age. I watched it again last week and it still works – the suspense still resonates and it provides a terrific showcase for its vintage cast
The handsomely mounted 20th Century Fox production of takes place in a baronial mansion on the banks of the Hudson, a few hours from New York City. The film opens on a farm in Connecticut where a principled fundamentalist (Walter Huston) rules his wife and daughters with an iron fist. Miranda (Gene Tierney) is the most independent of daughters and she has the opportunity to leave the farm and become a companion for the child of Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price), a distant relative. Her father relents and she moves to Dragonwyck Manor with her rich relative to care for his daughter. But the situation soon reveals itself to be much darker that Miranda had envisioned. Van Ryn is solicitous, but also arrogant and demanding. He has strained relationships with his wife, daughter and his tenant farmers. We also get the sense that there something else not right with Van Ryn, something more disturbing.
Although not anything like the urbane and witty films Mankiewicz would be known for (A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve), Dragonwyck is a suspenseful and eerie adaptation of the Anya Seton’s best seller. He sets things up perfectly by showing us the restrictive life that Miranda has at home on the farm and we are completely in synch with her desire to experience something new at Dragonwyck. As she travels by boat to the mansion, we’re as excited as she is at seeing the house for the first time. And our dread begins as soon as she walks in the door where’s she’s greeted oddly by the housekeeper, played by Spring Byington. Dragonwyck introduces the idea of hauntings, family curses, insanity and drug addiction. It’s like a gothic thriller buffet!
The underrated Gene Tierney leads the cast and she’s wonderful as she takes the character from girlish naivete to suspicious and threatened wife. The very beautiful Tierney never got the recognition she deserved as an actress and this film came as part of a string of strong performances: Heaven Can Wait (1943), Laura (1944), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), The Razor’s Edge (1946), and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). A pretty terrific run.
But as good as Tierney is, this is Vincent Price’s movie. This was the film that set him on his road to becoming the King of Horror. It’s a dazzling performance – he makes sure the character is both insufferable and charming until we see that he’s ultimately a delusional and dangerous threat to everyone. With Price’s hypnotic voice and imposing demeanor, he’s both a perfect romantic lead and frightening villain. When Miranda finally discovers that Van Ryn has been up to in his secluded room, it’s a great Price moment.
Jumping ahead 53 years to 1999 – just in time for the millennium – we were treated to Tim Burton’s very loose adaptation of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, the tale of a timid schoolteacher and his encounter with a headless horseman. Instead of the timid schoolteacher, Burton gives us a police detective (Johnny Depp) who is equally timid, but also very bright with a forward-thinking knack for forensics.
Set at the turn of the century in 1799, Sleep Hollow is a visual feast which kicks into high gear from the first few frames as we see Martin Landau in a carriage travelling by a corn field. Soon the driver of the carriage is decapitated, and then very quickly Landau’s character meets the same end. Depp makes his way to the village of Sleepy Hollow from New York City to investigate these and other murders that soon follow – all seemingly at the hand of the terrifying headless horseman that expert camerawork and CGI effects make terrifyingly plausible.
Unlike Tierney, who journeyed up the Hudson by steamer, Depp’s journey to Sleep Hollow is by carriage, but along the banks of that same river. When he arrives in Sleepy Hollow, it’s not as majestic as the arrival in Dragonwyck, but it’s equally daunting. The town is dark, there’s now one around. But he gets his own mansion when he arrives at the Van Tassel home – lit for a party to celebrate the harvest complete with jack-o-lanterns and bails of hay decorating the property.
Where the original novel made Ichabod Crane (Depp) the target of the horseman, Burton’s story uses the horseman to exact revenge on residents of the town. Depp seems to muddy things by showing up to help solve things in a practical way, providing us with an intriguing mix of the occult (something has to be controlling the horseman) and logic.
I don’t think Burton ever created a sustained visual mood better than he does here. While the case can be made for his grimy 1840’s London in Sweeny Todd (2007) or the mid-century black and white perfection of Ed Wood (1994), the dark, drab town of Sleepy Hollow – punctuated with splashes of orange, red (in the form of blood) and never-ending mist – is the stuff of early American Halloween dreams.
Depp makes a perfect Ichabod – nervous, twitchy but ultimately strong – and he’s supported with a strong group of performers as the residents of Sleepy Hollow. Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson and Richard Griffiths are standouts. Christina Ricci is also strong in one of her first adult roles as the requisite conflicted herione and a believable love interest for Depp. And Christoher Walken is ideal as the near silent, viciously murderous horseman.
Burton’s film is not the first adaptation of Irving’s story. There was a 1922 silent version with Will Rogers, and Disney gave the story its patented animated treatment in its entertaining short film released in 1949, with narration by Bing Crosby. It stuck pretty close to the original story and is definitely worth watching.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.