movie review by
Gary Johnson

 

(© 1999 Paramount Pictures and Mandalay Pictures LLC. All rights reserved.)

Studio
Web sites:
PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Movie
Web site:
SLEEPY HOLLOW

Sleepy Hollow
Sleepy Hollow delivers exactly what you'd expect from a Tim Burton movie: it's a meticulously designed fantasy told in shades of black and grey that wows you with its incredible sets and moody photography. Splashes of blood, courtesy of the Headless Horseman's sword, provide some of the movie's few touches of color. Burton's storytelling is still somewhat suspect, but this time he's working from a classic American tale of the macabre.

Sleepy Hollow only takes about 30 minutes to tell Washington Irving's original tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, after which Burton elaborates wildly for the next 70 minutes. So Irving's tale just serves as the initial impetus, and even then Burton takes many liberties with the story. For example, no longer is Ichabod Crane a schoolteacher. Now he's an eccentric constable brought to town to solve the recent rash of murders. Some of the character names are the same--such as Katrina Van Tassel, Balthus Van Tassel, and Brom Van Brunt--but the story now acquires a more malevolent atmosphere. Burton doesn't mince around the question of whether or not the Headless Horseman actually exists. In Burton's Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman does in fact exist. He's no mere figment of over-active imaginations. Now, he's an Evil Dead inspired killing machine who excels at severing the heads of his victims.

Fans of Washington Irving's original tale might be somewhat dismayed by Burton's embellishments, which can be interpreted as a cynical updating of the tale for violence-inured contemporary audiences; however, Sleepy Hollow contains some of Burton's best filmmaking. It oozes atmosphere. Burton brings to life an entire fanciful world where witches and curses are entirely believable.

The town of Sleepy Hollow itself is a masterful creation. It includes a collection of period buildings--a covered wooden bridge, a church, a general store, a doctor's office, a tavern, a blacksmith's shed, a bank, a millhouse, several residences, etc. These buildings have been weathered so that they look as if they've been standing for several decades. In addition, the woods that surround Sleepy Hollow are fog-filled and ominous, and the sky over Sleepy Hollow is rarely in view as oppressive cloud cover casts a claustrophobic hold over the movie.

In Johnny Depp's hands, Ichabod Crane has been recast as a science obsessed constable who lives inside his own head. A veteran of Burton's Edwards Scissorhands and Ed Wood, Depp isn't afraid of letting his characters look less than dignified. In Sleepy Hollow, Crane doesn't exactly start out heroic. He's a priggish lead who hides from the world by immersing himself in his half-baked scientific theories. But eventually, in lieu of any other heroic characters in sight, Crane must save the day. Depp deftly negotiates this schism in the Crane character. We look to Crane for guidance, for some semblance of stability that might ensure the Headless Horseman can be defeated, but Depp takes a gutsy move by allowing Crane to become noodle willed. It's an uncomfortable position to place a theater audience, but Depp makes us see Crane's weaknesses without also giving up faith in him.

A strong supporting cast serves as the residents of Sleepy Hollow. Christina Ricci plays the main love interest, Katrina Van Tassel. Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gough, and Richard Griffiths play the town elders. Their craggy faces indicate that something twisted is at foot. Miranda Richardson is appropriately elegant and sinister as Lady Van Tassel. Casper Van Dien is the stupid but buff Brom. Christopher Lee plays a cameo role as a New York judge who orders Ichabod to Sleepy Hollow. And Christopher Walken stars as the Headless Horseman himself.

But the real star in Sleepy Hollow is Tim Burton. This movie is all about set design and capturing fantastic worlds on film. Burton's storytelling is frequently less than compelling. For example, early on, he tells us what must be done to stop the murders--the Headless Horseman's head must be returned to his body--but then the characters forgot about this entirely. Only by coincidence do the two ever end up getting together. If Burton ever learns to bring his storytelling up to the same high level as his facility for design and photography he'll be a great filmmaker.


[rating: 3 of 4 stars]