While many horror fans are undoubtedly well accustomed with Disney’s classic animated interpretation of Washington Irving’s tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and just as knowledgeable of Tim Burton’s much more graphic film adaptation of the tale in 1999, there is another film version of the tale that, despite featuring at least one very well-known name, seems to have slipped into the cracks of obscurity.
On October 31, 1980, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow aired on the NBC Network as part of the network’s scheduled Halloween programming. The network’s evening programming featured segments between the shows and at commercial break hosted by television legend Steve Allen and Gary Coleman, who was still at that time one of the network’s biggest stars. The film was presented as part of the “Classics Illustrated” series of made-for-TV films, based on works from classic literature. The film was directed by Henning Schellerup, who worked on numerous blackploitation and genre films of the 1970’s, but may be best remembered as the cinematographer on 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night. That film was directed by Charles Sellier, who would be nominated for an Emmy for his role as executive producer on this film.
In what surely seemed like ideal casting at the time, and arguably more so after nearly 40 years of retrospection, a still relatively unknown Jeff Goldblum was cast in the role of Ichabod Crane. Still years from break-out roles in films such as The Big Chill, The Right Stuff, and David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly, Goldblum’s thin gangly frame looks quite similar to the Ichabod Crane found in Disney’s cartoon, and his trademark quirkiness feels tailor-made for the role.
The film opens to find school teacher Ichabod Crane walking down a snow-covered road towards the town of Sleepy Hollow at sunset, only to be set upon by a pack of hunting dogs. The dogs belong to local cretin Brom Bones, here played by NFL great Dick Butkus. Unlike previous incarnations of this tale, Brom is almost always found accompanied by his friend and accomplice, Frederic Dutcher (played by actor/comedian Paul Sands). Crane is chased up a tree by the hounds before Bones and Dutcher can ride up to the scene. Ever the bully, Brom makes his greetings by informing Crane of his disdain for school teachers (which is reflected in Bones’ intelligence level), and warning him that the town’s previous teachers have a tendency to vanish under mysterious circumstances.
An older gentleman soon arrives on his horse-drawn cart. The old man, named Fritz Vanderhoof (played by Welcome Back, Kotter‘s John Sylvester White) has come to retrieve Crane and to escort him to the schoolhouse where he will be living, as well as teaching. Vanderhoof, however, seems much more preoccupied with Crane’s marital status, frequently telling him things like “Widows make the best wives!” He also informs the teacher that the only exciting thing going on in the town of Sleepy Hollow is the local legend of a ghost that haunts the woods surrounding the town.
Almost immediately upon reaching the town, Ichabod discovers the lovely young maiden Katrina Van Tassle (played by Meg Foster, later of They Live and Masters of the Universe fame) while he’s attempting to retrieve something from atop the schoolhouse’s snow-covered roof. Unfortunately for Crane, he makes a horrendously poor first impression on the young lady when, in a klutzy manner presumably inspired by the “Ichabod” portrayed in the Disney animated version of the tale, he falls off the roof, burying Katrina in a mound of snow. In her anger, she discloses that her father is the one who hired Crane and, as such, can also fire the man!
There’s some inconsequential nonsense about the school house being built on top of ancient Indian burial grounds, and even an owl whom some of the townsfolk believe to be a reincarnated Indian chief. However, these may be among the least of the town’s superstitious beliefs. I mean, they do also believe in a headless horse-riding spectre that haunts the woods near town.
Also unlike the Disney version or the original Irving tale, another potential/not-so-potential love interest is introduced in the form of Vanderhoof’s widowed daughter, Thelma. While Vanderhoof may be determined to marry off his daughter once again, Thelma is very openly enamored with Brom Bones. However, Brom is far too intent on winning over Katrina to bother with the widow’s affections.
Ichabod soon learns more about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearances of the former school masters, While some may have been ran off by Bones after focusing too much of their attention on the fair Katrina, the last school teacher, a Winthrop Palmer, is believed to have drowned after allegedly being chased over a cliff by the menacing Horseman (if not one of the other malicious spirits rumored to linger near the small town). A man of science and learning, Ichabod is not one to easily believe in silly superstitions and dismisses the claims as nonsense and folktale.
While at dinner at Vanderhoof’s home, Ichabod notices an older, bearded man smiling at him through a window. The image of the man disappears before the others can see it. Upon describing the man that he claims to have seen, both Fritz and Thelma exclaim that he has just seen the “ghost” of Winthrop Palmer (Michael Ruud, Halloween 4‘s “Big Al”), the previous schoolmaster whom most believe to have met his fate after his encounter with the Horseman. While he desperately sticks to his belief that such things as spirits do not exist, Crane has no answer to what he knows he has seen.
Multiple attempts are made to scare the new schoolmaster, whether it be into believing in ghosts and spirits, or (by Bones and Dutcher) to drive the man screaming out of the town. By insinuating that this new teacher may be going “loony” from the solitude of bachelorhood, and just as concerned with marrying off his own daughter once again, Fritz convinces the Squire Van Tassle (prolific television character actor James Griffith) to marry his daughter off immediately to Brom Bones, thus making Thelma the only “available” woman left in the town.
However… a spat between the two women soon has them both exposing whom they truly wish to give their hearts (respectively). They devise their own plan to foil the men of the town and get what they want (respectively)!
The “ghost” of Winthrop Palmer soon materializes at the schoolhouse, the man very clearly alive. Although he survived being forced over a cliff by what may have either been Brom dressed as the Headless Horseman or the actual Horseman, the town has believed the man dead, so Palmer just kinda went along with it. He has now returned to seek vengeance against Brom for attempting to scare him off, as well as the “actual” Horseman, who he claims is the one that drove him over the cliffs. Whatever truly happened to the man is never clearly explained, but it is undeniable that the man is now clearly insane.
Rattled by all the events unfolding around him, Ichabod isn’t 100% certain that the conversation with Palmer wasn’t a hallucination. Nor is he still 100% certain that spirits such as the Horseman don’t exist. He becomes more uncertain after an elaborate prank by Brom and Fred have him seeing even more things that he can’t explain.
Things finally come to a head at the town’s Winter Ball dance, when Crane once again spies Palmer glaring at him through a window. This causes the clumsy teacher to knock over a dessert table which launches pies at Brom as he steals a dance with Katrina. This escalates into a small scale food fight, before Squire Van Tassle banishes the school master from his house. Meanwhile, Brom has decided that it’s now time for the man to be shown the way out of town…. permanently!
Shortly after his guests have departed, Squire Von Tassle finds Palmer hiding out in his barn, finally putting stories of the man’s demise to rest. Yet, they are both far too late to stop Bones from putting his plan into action. Dressed as the Horseman, Brom manages to corner Ichabod riding his horse from the Winter Ball. However, another Headless Horseman arrives at the scene. Brom flees, but this Horseman charges Crane nonetheless, nearly lopping off the teacher’s head with a swing of his sword.
Back at the Van Tassle residence, the Squire has Palmer escorted out of town one final time. In a reversal of character, it is Crane who ends up chasing the Horseman. In this case, to the Van Tassle property. The Horseman rides off into the night beyond the home, while Crane is stopped by the Squire, who did not see the phantom rider pass by mere moments earlier.
With Palmer found, the man is blamed for the incidents that have been occurring to the poor teacher. As he is no longer believed to be going mad, Ichabod is given permission to marry Katrina. Brom, on the other hand, is blackmailed by Thelma into marriage in exchange for keeping his involvement in the Horseman incidents a secret.
The film ends right there and with zero explanation as to who or what the Horseman may in truth be. More bothersome though is that there is nothing that says that the Horseman is “gone”. I mean, what’s to stop him from just coming back the next night?
Overall, the film is fairly entertaining, bolstered by Goldblum’s….. well, being Jeff Goldblum. Much like Christopher Walken (who knows a thing about Headless Horsemen), Goldblum stopped playing “characters” damn near 40 years ago and just started being “Jeff Goldblum” in every role that he’s cast in! And for the most part, it’s worked brilliantly!
The majority of the supporting parts are also ably cast, with Foster’s “Katrina” being properly endearing and Butkus’ “Brom” a much more likable bully than the antagonist from Disney’s film. “Fritz” is a vastly more amicable fellow that John Sylvester White ever got to be as “Mr. Woodman”, and adds a majority of the film’s comic relief.
While Sands isn’t bad in the role of “Frederic Dutcher”, the character adds nothing to the story. In fact, there’s very solid argument that there is too much focus on the character, and that the scenes featuring him actually drag the film’s pacing to a crawl.
While this version of Washington Irving’s tale most certainly will not be replacing either Disney’s or Tim Burton’s visions as the superior version on most people’s lists, it’s still a suitable addition or supplement. It definitely deserves to be better remembered than it is, if only for the casting.
Now, if I can only find a version of the film with those Gary Coleman segments still included. Either way, the film is available on bootleg DVD, as well as on YouTube. (Sorry, the link won’t allow playback on our site.) Both options feature piss poor picture quality.