Five Reasons You Should Be Watching Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow cast

The new FOX paranormal series Sleepy Hollow, based on the classic story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, concludes its first season with a two-hour finale airing tonight, January 20th.  The show originally started with a pilot that re-imagined the original tale, sending Ichabod Crane and his nemesis the Headless Horseman mysteriously forward in time to the present, where they continue their conflict.  Crane joins forces with police officer Abigail Mills in order to stop the Horseman and other creatures of darkness. The show has quickly expanded its mythology in interesting ways that stretch beyond just the Horseman, and in doing so it’s become, in my opinion, one of the best supernatural shows in recent memory.  The premise of Sleepy Hollow might have appeared hokey at first, but the series has proven it has more thought put into it than you would expect.  If you haven’t checked out the show yet, here are some reasons why you should give it a chance:

1. The Characters
The series features a mixture of characters, some from Irving’s story and others created by the show’s writers.  In both cases, however, they are afforded the same amount of care and depth.  The sixth episode of the show, “The Sin Eater,” features an intense dramatic scene that hinges upon the friendship between Ichabod and Abigail.  Despite the fact that the show was only about halfway through its first season, the characters already had the necessary chemistry to make the scene effective and engaging.  The friendship between Ichabod and Abigail is the emotional core of the show, and it provides warm reprieve from the horrors that they face in each episode.

Elsewhere, other characters have been explored less, but it adds to the mystery of the show.  A police captain named Irving (named after the author, of course) and Abigail’s sister Jenny became more involved as the season continued, and they’ve added a new dimension to the show.  All of these characters work very well together, while each has his or her own strengths.  The only weak link at this point is Ichabod’s wife Katrina, but her detachment from the others is a central element to the main story, so I’m sure she will have bigger moments in upcoming episodes.

British actor Tom Mison stars as Ichabod Crane, a man transported out of his own time.

British actor Tom Mison stars as Ichabod Crane, a man transported out of his own time.

2. The History
Washington Irving originally wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as an attempt to build a mythology for the United States, which was in its infancy at the time.  Sleepy Hollow the series takes the same approach, and most episodes feature a flashback to Crane fighting in the American Revolution.  These are not simply history lessons, however, because each scene plays a role in both Crane’s character development and the continuously growing mythology of monsters and witches.  Occasionally, Crane’s role in pretty much every major event in the War seems a bit far-fetched, but it’s fun if you’re able to suspend your belief.  Not only is it good to see the fantasy grounded in real history, but the origins of the United States are mystified in an interesting way.  It’s not just a war for independence, but a battle between good and evil.

3. The Production Value
Len Wiseman, the director behind action films like Underworld and Live Free or Die Hard, is an executive producer and occasional director on Sleepy Hollow.  I’m sure the name might not be the best vote of confidence, because his movies have not always had a positive reputation, but here he gives the series a wonderful cinematic flair.  The pilot, which was directed by Wiseman, especially had a certain look that surprised me and drew me into the show immediately.  The show maintains this quality most of the time, but I will admit that a certain episode later in the season (“Sanctuary”) experimented with some different techniques that didn’t complement the show’s usual style.

The solid production value is a big advantage for Sleepy Hollow, which relies on effects, makeup, and wardrobe to not only create the supernatural monsters, but also to bring 18th century America to life.  I still don’t know how they make the Horseman look headless, but I wonder every time he is on screen.

The Headless Horseman

The Headless Horseman brings terror wherever he rides.

4. The Format
Some might be curious why the first season of a network television show is ending in mid-January.  Is Sleepy Hollow cancelled?  Actually, no.  Inspired by recent cable television hits such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men, FOX is trying to stay ahead of the curve by ordering less episodes of newer shows like Sleepy Hollow.  At first, this sounds like a negative, but often the shorter seasons lead to an overall improvement in the quality of the show, because the filmmakers only have to worry about thirteen (or less) episodes instead of twenty-two episodes, the common length of a network season.

What this means is that Sleepy Hollow seasons are less likely to have “filler” episodes that don’t affect the larger story line.  Each episode is more important, because the writers have to fit a season’s worth of plot development in just thirteen episodes.

5. The Storytelling
On paper, the underlying concept behind the series appears to be achingly familiar: a straight-laced police officer teams up with an eccentric civilian in order to solve a variety of cases.  If you have watched network television in recent years, I’m sure some other shows are already coming to mind (Castle, perhaps?).  You might also think that the premise also suggests that the show would be a procedural, each episode having its own self-contained story, so that it can attract casual viewers.

Neither of these presumptions are exactly wrong.  Sleepy Hollow does in fact have a cop partnered with a rather odd gentleman who assists her in solving cases, but unlike the other programs that use the trope, Sleepy Hollow is far more natural in its writing.  Ichabod Crane is a consistent character, never acting odd just for the sake of acting odd, and the duo quickly becomes a team, instead of bickering endlessly to create sexual tension.  In addition, while episodes are structured like a procedural, each case is relevant to the ongoing story line.  Sleepy Hollow is a rare show that can maintain this balance, and in its success it reminds me of certain great fantasy shows before it, namely Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural.

These are just five reasons, among many, that I’ve become addicted to this new series, and I hope others would find it interesting enough to pursue.  FOX has already renewed it for a second season, so it’s not going anywhere, but I feel like I owe it to fans of the genre, and fans of good television, to recommend Sleepy Hollow.

The Cabin in the Woods

"You think you know the story."

“You think you know the story.”

Searching for a weekend retreat, five young men and women travel to an old cabin, far from the reaches of civilization.  Little do they know that a mysterious force is at work in the house, ready to threaten their lives.  Does that sound very familiar?  Just wait.  At the same time, two men who seem to have knowledge of the cabin arrive at a strange facility an unknown distance away.  Who are these men?  What is their job?  These questions and more are answered in the film The Cabin in the Woods.

The best advice I can give for people who want to watch The Cabin in the Woods is to know as little as possible before you see it, so I’m trying to avoid spoilers in this review.  I can say that, while the original premise of the film intentionally uses a cliche where the main characters are isolated from the outside world, the movie quickly moves beyond the concept and into richer territory.  The size of the story keeps growing until it has a scope far larger than any other horror film I’ve seen.  Although I did want to watch the movie again immediately after finishing it the first time, I do think a big part of the initial experience is the excitement of discovering the truth behind the cabin and that can be ruined if you know too much about the story before seeing the film.

The Cabin in the Woods was directed by Drew Goddard, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joss Whedon.  If you’ve read my review of the Avengers you know how much I love the works of Joss Whedon.  He knows how to tell a story like few other writers do, adding wit and humour to his shows and films without diffusing the weight and power of his dramatic moments.  Whedon’s talent is clearly at work in Cabin, but one cannot disregard the talent of Goddard as well.  Goddard not only worked on Whedon’s television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but also some great episodes for two of my other favourite shows, Alias and Lost.  With these two fantastic filmmakers collaborating on The Cabin in the Woods, it’s no wonder that the film turned out so good.

"Let's get this party started."

“Let’s get this party started.”

Whedon and Goddard designed The Cabin in the Woods to work both as a standard horror movie and as a satire of the genre, which was a challenge to accomplish, but they succeeded.  Some viewers of horror films are quickly exasperated by the illogical decisions made by the characters or the story elements that are overused within the genre.  Cabin finds humour in these tropes and offers explanations within the story.  If you’ve ever been frustrated by the weak storytelling of horror movies, you can find comfort in the film’s take on the genre.  On the other hand, if you simply enjoy horror movies as they are, The Cabin in the Woods is entertaining in this regard as well.

Of course, the fact that The Cabin in the Woods can act as a regular horror film does come with its own set of problems.  The film is tame compared to other recent horror movies, such as the Saw or Hostel films, but it does have enough violence and gore to turn away certain squeamish viewers.  In addition, some of the characters who act out the cliches of the genre are by necessity not developed as well as others.  The best and most complex characters of the film turn out to be the ones who satirize the horror genre the most: Fran Kranz, who also appeared in Whedon’s show Dollhouse and his upcoming film version of Much Ado About Nothing, plays a stoner named Marty who regularly points out the absurdity of the situation at the same time he tries to survive it; Kristen Connolly plays Dana, a girl who transcends her stereotypical role in the horror film; Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) appear as the mysterious men who control the fate of the young people in the cabin, bringing a dark humour to the film while referencing certain horror tropes.

The Cabin in the Woods is an well-designed and entertaining film that revives a stale premise.  The movie satisfies with a variety of humourous and surprising moments, but there is a deeper meaning to all of it.  The movie leaves you asking many questions:  What is the nature of humanity?  Why do we watch horror films?  Is it evil to find entertainment in the deaths of characters?  These philosophical questions combined with such an entertaining story make The Cabin in the Woods one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen and one of the best movies of 2012.  I give the film a 5 out of 5.  Watch the trailer for the film below:

All That’s 90s is New Again

I don’t typically write about music here, but I do love music and I have noticed an interesting trend that excites me.  First, let me mention that, for the most part, my musical tastes formed in the late 1990s.  I like music from all decades, but the alternative rock in the 90s came at the right moment, when I was nearing the age where I could explore music in a complex way.  As years passed, the mainstream radio focused more on pop and hip-hop, leaving me disappointed and nostalgic for the 90s again.

A group of rock bands who were popular in the 90s – Third Eye Blind, Eve 6, Matchbox Twenty, Everclear, Blink-182, among others – seemed to drop off the radar roughly around 2003 and stopped making music for most of the nine years since.  Third Eye Blind finally released their fourth album, Ursa Major, in 2009, and Blink-182’s 2011 album Neighborhoods came after an eight-year hiatus, but so far 2012 is topping them all with four albums from bands who have been silent for a while.  I thought I would focus on them:

Eve 6Speak in Code (released April 24th)Often incorrectly labeled a one-hit-wonder band because of “that heart-in-a-blender song” (It’s called “Inside Out,” okay?), Eve 6 was able to maintain a dedicated following between their 2003 album It’s All In Your Head and this year’s Speak in Code.  The new album sounds a lot like their second effort Horrorscope, though, which works out well because that was a fantastic record.  The first radio single from Speak in Code was “Victoria,” but I actually prefer “Lost & Found”:

 

Matchbox TwentyNorth (coming out September 4th).  I just heard their new single “She’s So Mean” this morning, which was good enough to inspire this post.  Matchbox hasn’t been completely out of the spotlight in the past decade, having released five new songs on Exile on Mainstream in 2007 (then there are the Rob Thomas solo albums, which don’t sound entirely different from Matchbox Twenty), but it’s good to see the band back together to make a new full-length album again (their first since More Than You Think You Are from 2002).  After the first listen, “She’s So Mean” was stuck in my head.  It doesn’t sound like a specific older song from the band, but it’s catchy and it has their signature sound. If the other songs are just as good, North could be really great.  Listen to “She’s So Mean” below:

 

EverclearInvisible Stars (coming out June 26th).  I have to be honest, I haven’t been as excited about this release compared to the others.  Everclear had one of my favourite albums from the 90s, So Much for the Afterglow (featuring such hits as “Father of Mine” and “I Will Buy You A New Life“), but they have been in a slump in the past ten years.  After two of the members left in 2003, frontman Art Alexakis decided to replace them with a random assortment of other musicians, whom he also replaced a few years later.  He then made two albums that seemingly consisted of remakes of his old hits and covers.  Needless to say, Everclear is probably the band that should have been on a break for nine years.  But, hearing their new song “Be Careful What You Ask For,” it’s hard not to be nostalgic and hopeful.  Perhaps the original excitement of Everclear could re-surface after a decade of underwhelming decisions.  Listen to the song below:

 

LitThe View from the Bottom (coming out June 19th).  Lit is known best for their late-90s ode to self-destructive behaviour, “My Own Worst Enemy,” but they continued to make records until their self-titled release in 2004.  The band has experienced some changes in their line-up between that album and this year’s The View from the Bottom, with the band adding an extra guitarist and hiring a replacement for drummer Allen Shellenberger, who unfortunately passed away in 2009 from cancer.  However, the band’s sound and attitude have appeared to survive unscathed.  In their slightly-crude new single “You Tonight” (guess which word is omitted from that title), Lit rock out with the same energy that they had over a decade ago:

These albums might not live up to the past works of these bands, but I’m just happy they’re releasing music at all.  Eve 6, Everclear, Matchbox Twenty, and Lit all represent an important time in my life, and even their new songs make me nostalgic about that time.

To end this post, I thought I would share a recent mashup of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and the 90s hit “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind.  The mashup is made by Dan Chamberlain, also known as Chambaland.  It’s not an entirely new song, but to me it shows how good the music of the 90s was, because I prefer this version over the regular “Call Me Maybe”:

That’s it for today.  Don’t worry – I will talk about books again soon.