Headless Horseman (2007)

Rating: B-

Dir: Anthony C. Ferrante
Star: Billy Aaron Brown, Rebecca Mozo, Richard Moll, Lizzie Prestel

This was originally a Halloween special on the SyFy channel, and considered as such, is actually a decent watch. It’s an adaptation of Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, relocated to Kansas. A group of seven students, on their way to a Halloween party, take a “short-cut” and end up stuck in the backwoods town of Wormwood Ridge. The locals won’t let them leave, and they become prey to the titular creature. He’s the spirit of a murderer, who was killed by the townsfolk in the early 19th-century. Now, every seven years, he comes back, and must take seven heads before midnight, or the town will disappear in a puff of folklore. Guess who are intended to be the sacrificial offerings this time?

After a prologue set in the American Civil War, we’re introduced to the cattle in question. I was initially unimpressed by them, being just a stereotypical bunch of assholes, good only for losing their heads. They do improve somewhat, though it’s not hard to figure out who’s going to survive and who won’t. Liam (Brown) and Ava (Mozo) are about the most well-developed of the septet, along with Candy (Prestel), the local Lolita who is their only ally on the ground. Moll adds colour as the owner of the local general store, and the Romanian extras help in this department too. Indeed, I was generally impressed how well Romania stood in for the rural American south, and the way it’s shot enhances the creepy atmosphere. 

I also liked the way the story splices into the Headless Horseman legend, elements inspired by other horror movies. The idea of a country village luring in “townies” on a cyclical basis was used in 2000 Maniacs. Meanwhile, the way the Horseman’s head gradually regenerates after each kill, reminded me of Hellraiser. Yet these feel organic, part of the original myth, rather than bolted-on anachronism. Even when the Horseman briefly swaps his four-legged steed for a petrol-driven version, it doesn’t seem unnatural. The kills include some imaginative decapitations, e.g. one victim falls head-first into a bear-trap. Here, the practical effects work significantly better than the CGI; hey, it was 2007. The tenticular neck-stump of the Horseman was kinda cool though.

Things get too convoluted in the third act, with excessive embellishment of the legend. The dwindling number of survivors end up going on a lengthy quest for a sword, because it is the only thing capable of killing the Horseman. This has the effect of bringing the film to a halt, just when it should be going into a full gallop. The hand-to-hand combat between the final survivor and the Horseman is also a bit pants, to put it mildly. It’s a shame this is not able to sustain the invention and energy shown in the first two-thirds, cruising to the finish line on momentum. Still, two-thirds of a good film is considerably more than most SyFy Original movies manage to achieve.