This October Kitsch King conjures in the Fall season with a focus on eerie entertainments. With this entry, I take a step back a couple of weeks to examine the interior/exterior production conglomeration that constitutes Fox’s latest genre gamble, the gothic literary adaptation of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow. Sleepy Hollow opens in “Hudson Valley, New York 1781”, where a slow-motion blue filter drenched steady cam POV Revolutionary War flashback opens. In the trenches, a bearded man with long hair faces down a masked man with enormous stature. The larger man, a Redcoat, appears to have whitened eyes. He delivers a fatal blow across the bearded individual’s chest, but as he raises his sword for the deathblow, the bearded revolutionary swings his sword and beheads the Redcoat with a single sweep. They both collapse into the mud and grime as the scene ends. The next scene incorporates film lens’ that warp shots inside of a cavernous realm. A body unearths itself from a muddy grave as glass jars holding snakes and frogs shatters untouched. The bearded man emerges from this muddy tomb. He takes to the surface where he finds a roadway. Yet this roadway is foreign as suddenly a modern semi and car both swerve by the bearded revolutionary, signifying a temporal shift and the man’s now fatalistic avoidance of death.
A crow lands atop a street sign as the camera frame pulls outward and upward to show a road sign that reads, “Village of Sleepy Hollow Population 144,000”. The Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil” plays over an aerial sequence overhead the quiet Sleepy Hollow terrain. The infamous lyrics “Please allow me to introduce myself” function as a meta-reference to the time-shifting immortality saga in the San Francisco skyline ending to Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (1992) Hollow’s quintessential “village” is modernized and quaint-ified by a café sequence featuring an aging Sheriff and his young female deputy. They sit reading newspapers over cups of coffee, apple pie, and French fries. Genre-exhaustive character actor Clancy Brown plays Sheriff August Corbin, but actress Nicole Beharie’s Deputy Abbie Mills soon takes center stage.
[Footnote: Clancy is notorious for his other headless role as the sword-wielding immortal villain opposite Christopher Lambert in Highlander. Brown also features an iconic deep voice that led to a career in animation work and the role of Lex Luthor in DC Comic’s various 1990s and 2000s animated TV series and feature films. Brown also played the demonic pastor in HBO’s short-lived Carnivale as well as a bit role in a couple of Lost’s superior episodes. The scene where the sheriff leaves the café even acknowledges Carnivale as Brown’s character nods at a priest, the role he formerly assumed, inside of the café, a timeless American location featured in apocalyptic visions on Carnivale, on his way out the door.]
The conceptualization [and soon centralization] of Sleepy Hollow‘s Black female deputy communicates on the outside an implausible disillusion of race representation, perhaps more rare than common; an issue that avoids the real-life conflicts that remain all too tragically familiar in America. One might contend that the effort at gender and racial diversification, like the show, veers into the supernatural. Yet I might argue this intentional casting assists a small legacy of change that while growing marginally often remains unnoticed. Thus, the casting choice visualizes Black female presence in law enforcement as a little-known fact and not as a ‘hollow’ PC gesture.
This is no surprise considering the show’s creator-executive producers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, two of the lead minds behind the post-9/11 zeitgeist of empty summer blockbuster sci-fi spectacles like the Transformers and Star Trek reboot franchises. Along with Lost alum Damon Lindelof, these writers comprise the new brat pack cabal of overpriced and oversaturated Hollywood hatchet script surgeons that both electrify and homogenize screenplays into formulaic genre hybrids. Yet like Lindelof, Orci and Kurtzman achieved this success through strong television work on shows like J.J. Abrams Alias and the beloved cult sci-fi caper Fringe. Thus, their return to TV might warrant a welcomed hand seeing as they exhibit a strong history in TV and perhaps their TV work omits their stranglehold toward creative output and contemporary Hollywood franchise fatigue. Or, perhaps Sleepy Hollow updates the latest rage in post-global transmedia popcorn genre splicing, a dangerous but often rewarding game that requires a literacy in media history to appreciate the combination and manipulation of intertextual links and associations.
The utopic racial diversification and genre canon cameos continues when another office shows up played by Harold and Kumar and Star Trek alum John Cho. Chow’s Deputy catches Ichabod Crane when he scrambles through mainstreet disillusioned and disoriented. Meanwhile, the Sheriff (Brown) meets an unfortunately early and tragic exit when he becomes the first modern casualty of the spectral resurrection of the now headless [Redcoat] horseman.
In police custody, Crane undergoes a polygraph where his interrogator asks if he has a “rational” understanding of how the headless horseman exists. The polygraph allows Crane the opportunity to explain his historical background and thus provide abbreviated context to both his contextual and literary origins. Deputy Abbie Mills suspects logic and rational thought when charged to escort Crane to a nearby mental institute. Abbie is affectively haunted by the death of her friend/mentor/partner and thus exercises her fears by rejecting scientific rationality in favor of mystical suspicion. Their car ride becomes complicated when Crane sees the minister from the café outside his parish. His sight triggers a flashback that places the same figure within the temporal frame of the Revolutionary war.
Crane and Abbie visit the crypt Crane emerged from where he finds a Bible marked by a passage from Revelation. The passage, according to Crane’s perspectival logic, signifies a sign of the apocalypse wherein the headless horseman rides the symbolic “white horse”. The use of a historical passage that transcends temporal logics performs an additional time-travel function that links past, present, future into a theological conspiracy theory. The underground mise en scene is moody and persuasive enough to seduce Abbie into further disobedience [for future episodes].
While mysticism and religious conspiracy overtake major themes, technology assumes the role of humor in Hollow. Technology provides the answer to Ichabod’s in-sanity with the polygraph as modern agents guffaw at Crane’s story. Then the car ride entrances Crane with experiential confection as he plays with the remote window like a cat. Once inside the crypt, Abbie offers Crane an LED flashlight that further baffles his formerly superior intelligence. These successfive scenes supplant audience-viewers with a kind of technological superiority over the protagonist but also injects a kind of childlike human agency or alienation which suggests viewers enact empathy so that this lost traveler might find a “normal” place in society. These tricks function to give the audience something to do other than judge the above average suspension of disbelief required to appreciate this revisionist narrative contraption.
Crane’s Biblical monologue fuses ideologies as he speaks of the Biblical revelation, the headless horseman myth, and General George Washington’s Revolutionary role as each tethered to the same atemporal fight for humanity’s existence. Meanwhile, the genre hybridity and conspiracy evocation pick up dramatically. The headless horseman (HH) rides onto the Church grounds. The priest [later referred to as “reverend” in a blatant reduction and distillation between Christian distinctions and sects] meets him in the exterior graveyard. The man of God chants Latin slogans, which then conjure chains that bind HH. But HH slices through them with his fire-tipped axe. The priest swears “not to tell” the location of some secret. But the HH is incapable of negotiation and swiftly beheads the religious representative. The film technique places the camera POV onto the head of the priest. As he loses his life, the “sight” of his perspective slides right and downward, turns vertical distance into horizontal, and slams onto the ground as the HH walks away. This production device places the audience into the action and ironically emphasizes their mortality [in the identification of characters] and immortality [as they continue to see after the priest would have perished].
At the crime scene, a investigating officer scolds Abbie for disobeying orders. Cho’s character also tells her to “back away” before she ruins her career. The raven that Ichabod first witnessed atop the Sleepy Hollow road sign reappears and leads him to specific grave. The grave belongs to his dead wife Katrina, and the tombstone caption suggests Katrina’s death resulted from a witch burning. Abby finds Ichabod and they engage a frank conversation with Ichabod where she rejects his request for help. Their conversation confronts the ideological debate between faith and reason the experiential evidence of what we see versus what science and logic tells us is generalizably possible. Abbie then escorts Ichabod to an institutionalized white cell. But instead of walking away from the case, Abbie returns to the Sheriff’s office to reminisce. This is when chance intervenes and Abbie comes across a key behind one of Sheriff Corbin photographs. Yet it appears also a case of destiny as the key is hidden behind a picture of Abbie. She tests the key in various office locations before she finally slides it into a large safe. Inside the safe, an assortment of files investigating “occultism” phenomena emerges. In addition, Abby finds an audio recorder holding the Sheriff’s personal reflections on this secret investigation. The recorder brings Brown back to life in the technical from of acousmetre. The finding also provides Abby the otherwise absent support to pursue Ichabod’s claims. Sheriff Corbin’s recording also emphasizes conspiracy in his secret investigation and his lack of trust to share his findings.
Inside his cell, Katrina “visits” Ichabod through a vision. In this vision, Katrina confesses her status as witch within a secret coven order. Katrina then confesses even more convoluted mystical historicity upon the information Ichabod already beheld. These series bible conspiracy points include that Katrina’s body was never buried, that her gravesite contains the HH skull, that Ichabod and the HH “bloodlines merged” when he wounded the horseman during the Revolutionary War, thus linking them together. Katrina further reveals that the “awakened” Ichabod actually sought to conjure the HH. Furthermore, protecting the skull will prevent the “end of the world”, Ichabod is known as “The First Witness” and “the answers are in George Washington’s Bible”. Indeed, Sleepy Hollow transcends mere genre mixing to invoke larger American ideological combinations of myth, folklore, religion, politics, history, science, fate, destiny, horror, and conspiracy. While the aesthetics combine a weary combination of innovating POVs and clichéd network TV techniques, the production works hard to emphasize visual storytelling alongside the markedly overcomplicated convolution of information compacted into the pilot.
In the pilot’s final act, the action shifts from character introduction and plot convolution into a whiz-bang shootout the re-imagines the headless horseman as a headless terminator, complete with shotgun and automatic assault rifle destruction of tombstones, public property, and police cars. The only saving grace involves the sleepy hollow myth whereby the sunrise denotes the horseman’s immediate retreat. In a final scene, Ichabod reinforces his apocalyptic prophecy with the spin that he and Abbie represent the “two witnesses” of the Biblical tribulation. “Perhaps you were called to something, Abbie…Perhaps we both were.” In a final shocker, the demonic embodiment of death, a pale animalistic humanoid with ram horns on its head visits Cho’s corrupt officer in his cell and decapitates him. Although Abbie and Ichabod cannot see him in their realm of reality, Abbie witnesses the figure crookedly wandering into an alternate reality visualized in a mirror’s reflection. This supernatural realm is the same is the forest setting where Crane saw Katrina from inside his cell. Thus, a fight to prevent the apocalypse begins in a wedding ceremony that employs old, new, borrowed, and blue black. The scene concludes with Clancy Brown’s eerie acousemetre voiceover reading from the book of Revelations and the replaying of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”