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 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 actually only watched that one 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?
Anyway, back in 1980, I watched Legend of Sleepy Hollow while spending the night over at my friend Rowman’s house. Rowman and his house played a significant part in my life up until middle school, when he and his family moved away. In our newly planted little neighborhood in Centerfield, Kentucky, his was the house that was farthest out in the woods, and therefore, our favorite place to spend the night. It was from his house that we launched our many Bigfoot expeditions. It was in his basement that we tried to summon the ghost of the recently deceased John Belushi. And it was there that I was once terrorized by an ax murderer. That was during a slumber party convened to work on our Greatest American Hero stage show, which consisted mostly of Rowman tying a towel around his neck, wearing red pajamas, and jumping off the stairs while flailing his arms and legs wildly. His mom was…well, you see…this was the 1970s, right? So things were, you know, different back then. So Rowman’s mom decided a basement full of freakish little boys was too good an opportunity to let pass, so she snuck outside, grabbed an ax, pulled a stocking over her head, and squatted down in front of the basement windows, lightly tapping it with the ax until one of us noticed. Our reaction was, ummm…hey! Why don’t we move on!
I was over at Rowman’s house when we watched this, and in my memory, Dark Night of the Scarecrow on the same night. That probably wasn’t actually the case (I’ll stop talking about Dark Night of the Scarecrow now). Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of my favorite spook tales. 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 really 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.
I guess I was pretty patient as a kid, or I watched this the same way I watched most things at that age — while doing five other things. 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 portion of the film seems like it would bored a young viewer silly, but it didn’t, and I wonder why. Part of it is that there’s just enough spook stuff to string you along if that’s what you’re looking for. Yeah, 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 easily able to tolerate the romantic comedy stuff because we knew what was coming. 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. He was a nerd, sure, but he was also confident (up to a point), clever, and had luck with the ladies. He makes social gaffes and was put in embarrassing situations, but he always handles them with a wink and dignity, 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. And 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 despite the fact that the movie up until this point 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.
It’s a pretty authentic version of the story, low key but professionally filmed and acted. Though made for TV, it could easily have passed muster as a feature film had the taste in feature film horror not moved toward slashers. Director Henning Schellerup was mostly a cinematographer on feature films, and an occasional director on made-for-TV movies. He brings a cinematic eye to the small screen, making good use 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. Luckily, 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. The supporting cast, including Meg Foster and her icy eyes, is solid, but really this is Goldblum’s show, and he nails it.
Unfortunately, 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 real misstep. We knew the story of the Headless Horseman, and we knew what happened to Ichabod Crane. We didn’t need it softened for us and made into an “all’s well that ends well” sort of thing. That keeps this version from being my favorite, though ultimately it doesn’t spoil the whole thing for me. 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 (Return of the Jedi, I’m looking at you). But I really 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 really bother me. Jeff Goldblum is just too perfect, and the film is just too enjoyable, for me to go all sourpuss on it.
Release Year: 1980 | Country: United States | Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Paul Sand, Meg Foster, Laura Campbell, Dick Butkis, James Griffith, Michael Ruud, Karin Isaacs, H.E.D. Redford, Tiger Thompson, John Sylvester White | Screenplay: Malvin Wald, Jack Jacobs | Director: Henning Schellerup | Cinematography: Paul Hipp | Music: Bob Summers | Producer: James L. Conway