Sleepy Hollow
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien
Director:

Tim Burton

Writing credits: Washington Irving (story), Andrew Kevin Walker
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Rated: R for graphic horror violence and gore, and for a scene of sexuality
  (US 1999)

Creepy beauty, mixed with equal parts of humor and the macabre, is Tim Burton's trademark recipe. The best of his work -- Beetlejuice, Batman, and the classic Edward Scissorhands -- have unsettled us even as they thrilled us, a perfect blend of fantasy and honest emotion that is odd yet recognizable, uncomfortable yet real. SLEEPY HOLLOW, Burton's gorgeously moody version of the Washington Irving short story, must be counted among Burton's best. If it entices more than it frightens -- it's hardly ever scary, which is its major drawback -- that's a gentle price to pay for such a well told tale.

Of course, if Burton had built SLEEPY HOLLOW from a script less meaty than the one written by Seven's Andrew Kevin Walker (and the uncredited Tom Stoppard, author of Shakespeare In Love), this film might very well have been a case of substance over style. Certainly, Burton's visual sensibilties are always breathtaking, and the recreated 19th century village of the title is Halloweenish eye candy. (Colleen Atwood's vibrant costumes abrasively complement the fog-covered countryside, giving a spine-tingling sense of spooky loneliness.) But Burton has wisely stacked the deck in such a way that the story's classic plot isn't overwhelmed by the technical wizardry.

Burton's casting, first and foremost, is the key to the film's success. His onscreen alter-ego, Johnny Depp, fills the shoes of Ichabod Crane, the comically nervous dandy from New York City who, as a police constable, comes to Sleepy Hollow to solve a string of grisly murders. The queen of indie films, Christina Ricci, gives Burton a hip edge as Katrina Von Tassel, the witchcraft-dabbling daughter of the town's mayor Baltus (Michael Gambon). Everyone in Sleepy Hollow is mysteriously (and deliciously) devious, including Katrina's stepmother (Miranda Richardson), the reverend (Burton favorite Jeffrey Jones), and Von Garrett (Martin Landau, looking very much like Vincent Price), an early victim.

And the story? Well, if you don't know it from the Disney cartoon or the novella, you're in for a scrumptious treat. One of America's greatest folktales, SLEEPY HOLLOW is betwitched by the terrifying Headless Horseman, an undead demon from hell, who decapitates his victims...and then takes the heads. As Ichabod tries in vain to explain the crimes through 'modern scientific methods', the Horseman continues his rampage. In the end, he realizes, someone is controlling the evil spirit...someone who has taken the Horseman's own head.

It's gleefully spooky, and the relish for the tale comes through in the direction, the acting, the stunts (which are impressively executed), and the art direction. Humor abounds in every scene; Burton has realized that decapitations are ghoulish but also, in certain contexts, terribly funny to look at, and each moment plays a fine line between horror and comedy. Depp, in particular, has created a true anti-action hero in Ichabod, a character that dances between these two forces. His portrayal of Constable Crane is a case study in mannerisms, a commanding use of prim, delicate physicality that manages to be both funny and endearing. Already one of the best actors of his generation, Depp has added another unforgettable performance to his impressive resume.

If CHICKEN RUN had been concocted by Will Vinton or another practitioner of American claymation, it would probably have been either horribly tasteless (pardon the pun) or hopelessly maudlin. In the hands of Nick Park, it carries a dry British wit, extending even to its irrationally silly title, that makes it that rare gem -- a movie that's great for children, who won't get most of the jokes, and their parents.

SLEEPY HOLLOW is bound to disappoint some fans, especially those coming to be scared out of their pants. Perhaps it's sad that the film isn't scary; certainly, it might have added another layer onto an already hypnotizing palette. But for Burton fans, indeed fans of filmmaking everywhere, SLEEPY HOLLOW is cause for celebration. One can fall in love with the possibilties of the medium all over again.

- Gabriel Shanks

 

Review text copyright © 1999 Gabriel Shanks. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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