The Doom of Goldblum
The man who was born to play Ichabod Crane
If any actor in the world was born to play Ichabod Crane, it would be Jeff Goldblum. So thank God someone thought to cast him in just that role. 1980’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow is, along with Dark Night of the Scarecrow, a made-for-television movie I seem to remember watching just about every single Halloween when I was a wee sprout. In actuality, I probably only watched it a couple of times, and even though I begin every description of Dark Night of the Scarecrow off with, “Man, I watched that like a thousand times when I was a kid,” I’m pretty sure I only watched it once. All I remember from it is some guy I could swear was M. Emmet Walsh drowning in a silo full of corn. All I remember from Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a scene where Brom Bones puts on a hood to disguise himself as the Headless Horseman. Heck, I didn’t even remember Jeff Goldblum was Ichabod Crane, and I could have sworn that Brom was played by Stacey Keach. Well, it turns out that M. Emmet Walsh isn’t even in Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and Brom Bones was played by football legend Dick Butkus, not Stacey Keach. That’s what I get for listening to eight-year-old me. Though I will defend my younger self: it seems almost impossible that M. Emmet Walsh somehow wasn’t in Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and Dick Butkus and Stacey Keach do look a lot alike. What can you do?
Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of my favorite spooky tales, though upon revisiting it, it’s much more of a comedy of manners that wee me remembered (and Ichabod is practically the villain). When I moved to New York, I made sure to visit the Sleepy Hollow cemetery to see the gravestones of the many people who irritated Irving and so got characters named after themselves in his tale of horror. As a kid, I even used to make my parents go out of their way on drives so we could go over the covered bridge in Goshen (long since torn down, sadly). That covered bridge was fabled to be ground zero for all sorts of ghoulish shenanigans and devil worshipping, though it wasn’t until my teenage years that I got to indulge those fancies. I remember loving Legend of Sleepy Hollow the TV movie as a kid, but then, I wasn’t a discerning viewer. So I thought it would be fun, years after the fact — decades, even — to revisit it.
Pretty much the first hour of the movie is a colonial-era romantic comedy, with gangly young schoolteacher Ichabod Crane (Jeff Goldblum) arriving in the remote New York town of Sleepy Hollow and immediately getting on the bad side of local blowhard bully Brom Bones (not Stacy Keach). Crane is a happy-go-lucky fellow though, and he reacts to Brom’s needling with a good-natured humor that only makes the mustached thug angrier. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Crane soon becomes infatuated with Katrina Van Tassel (Meg Foster), also the object of Brom’s affection. Thus we set the stage for an hour of romantic conniving and silliness, with the occasional mention of ghosts and that most famous of local bogeymen, the Headless Horseman.
This is, incidentally, not all that different from how the original story plays out. There’s just enough spook stuff to string me along, now and back when I was a kid. Sure, it’s obvious most of the stuff is hijinks orchestrated by mischievous locals, but it doesn’t matter. You still get people talking about ghosts and apparitions. Also, we kids knew that the Headless Horseman was real and that he was going to come after Ichabod Crane, so I think we were able to tolerate the romantic comedy. But also there’s the simple fact that Jeff Goldblum is pretty fantastic in this, an Ichabod Crane that we all loved and related to. In Irving’s story, Ichabod is indeed more erudite and learned than the people around him, but he’s also an insufferable snob and an insatiable mooch. Goldblum’s version softens Crane’s sharper edges (the characterization in the Disney cartoon was much closer to Irving’s). Goldblum’s Ichabod is a nerd, sure, but he is also confident (up to a point), clever, and has luck with the ladies. He makes social gaffes and is put in embarrassing situations, but he handles them with a wink, even in the most undignified moments. Goldblum is basically playing Goldblum, but Goldblum is exactly what’s called for in Ichabod Crane.
It’s just enough to keep a kid interested for an hour or so — and it’s at the one-hour mark that the movie knows to start bringing on the scares (not to mention a food fight). Although we know that most of the chilling things becoming more pervasive in Ichabod’s life are being perpetrated by Brom and his slack-jawed flunkie in an attempt to disgrace the schoolteacher and drive him mad, it’s soon also apparent that not everything that’s lurking in the dark woods around Sleepy Hollow is a prank or a legend. The fact that Goldblum makes for such a likable Ichabod means what we know is about to happen is all the tenser. It even makes for an unexpected tone of melancholy even though up until this point the movie has been relatively breezy and comedic. When the final act plays out along a dark, snowy path, we were (and remain) primed and ready for the Headless Horseman, the appearance of which is made all the sweeter for the fact that he’s been absent the entire movie.
Though made for TV, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow could easily have passed muster as a feature film had the taste in feature film horror not moved toward slashers. Director Henning Schellerup was primarily a cinematographer for feature films and an occasional director of made-for-TV movies. He brings a cinematic eye to the small screen, making good use of the snowy landscapes and dark woods. The entire movie only requires a few simple locations, but you never notice how limited it is since Schellerup is an ace at capturing the stark beauty while making sure the picture concentrates on the characters. The screenwriters are up to the task of having the characters be the center of attention. Jack Jacobs had been writing television for decades, and Malvin Wald cut his teeth writing some fantastic film noir scripts, including The Naked City, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. They create an Ichabod Crane that we enjoy following and a Brom Bones we hate without really hating him.
Being a television movie means it plays out pretty conservatively. Even the ending we knew and expected is turned on its head in favor of a more family-friendly happy ending — the movie’s one misstep. We knew the story of the Headless Horseman, and we knew what happened to Ichabod Crane (or did we? Upon rereading it recently, it was much more apparent that it might indeed all have been a prank, and Ichabod’s disappearance was just him high-tailing it out of town). We didn’t need it softened for us and made into an “all’s well that ends well” sort of thing. I mean, we had the Disney version, and that was pretty scary and grim.
That keeps this version from being my favorite, though ultimately it doesn’t spoil the whole thing. The finale is still pretty thrilling, with Ichabod chasing after a headless horseman he assumes to be an impostor when, in fact, we know it’s the real deal. And the rest of the movie has been charming enough that as kids we were willing to forgive its lack of a covered bridge and jack-o-lantern throwing. It may partly be nostalgia, but other things for which I have fondness born of youth did not survive adulthood re-examination. But I enjoyed revisiting this version of the classic tale. As an adult looking at it, I probably regret the absence of those things more than when I was a kid, but it doesn’t bother me. Jeff Goldblum is just too perfect, and the film is just too enjoyable, for me to go all sourpuss on it.