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Sleepy Hollow

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 19 November 1999

Sleepy Hollow  

Directed by Tim Burton.

  Starring Johnny Depp, 
Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, 
Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, 
Jeffrey Jones, Ian McDiarmid, 
Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, 
Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, 
and Christopher Walken.

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker; 
Story by Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker;
based upon the story by Washington Irving.

The latest magnum horror opus from the mixed-up mind of Tim Burton is an fx feast for the eyes, but leaves a hollow spot in the spiritual soul. Half filled with ambitious set dressings, sumptuous gothic atmosphere, and gnarly, fog-drenched countrysides, but half empty with a deadly serious, draggy script and especially over-loquacious, and, frankly, predictable ending, Sleepy Hollow is second-tier Burton, below the ever-watchable upper-echelon Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, yet towering over the overblown, bargain basement camp of Mars Attacks! Flattering himself with passing references to his earlier works -- most noticeable being Danny Devito’s Penguin teeth now gumming up the Hessian orifice of Christopher Walken in mercenary, pre-Headless Horseman mode, or Johnny Depp’s scissor-like surgical tools -- Burton models his late 18th century world after the Hammer schlockworks of the 1950s and 1960s. Even Christopher Lee, who blessed many of those British horror entries, keeps that appropriate tone with a short stump as a curly burgomaster more at home in a torture chamber than the courtroom. (Of course, the late Vincent Price, another Hammer graduate, made a poignant contribution to Scissorhands.) Yet while the film screams with a "watch me" sense of evil fantasy and bloody gore (truth in advertising: heads do roll!), it creaks along when the cast tries to explain away the mysterious deaths that are occurring in the small, moneyed, but secret-entrenched Hudson Valley Dutch farm community.

The actors are effective in spurts, generally when being chased or stumbling around in the darkness, rain, and mud. Martin Landau, alumnus of Ed Wood, kicks off early, making a momentary, pre-credit appearance before losing his head to the swish of a glistening blade. Too briefly, Walken is at his glorious excessive best in framing the foreign-born killer soon dispatched to become a legend in his own tomb. Twenty-something and blonde trellised Christina Ricci is a disquieting, beguiling daughter of the landed gentry. She’s an uncommonly strong ingenue in search of an out of bodice experience with eccentrically resourceful police constable Ichabod Crane (Depp, coming back for his third go-round with Burton -- after the two Ed films). The detective, banished to Sleepy Hollow from New York City for his unorthodox and unappreciated scientific approach to crime, is an unwilling hero, meek as Clark Kent (even to the point of sporadically sporting some oversized goggles), yet curious as a black cat. And how appropriate that the person doing all that crisp, dastardly swordplay is none other than a faceless Reg Park, a.k.a Darth Maul, the summer’s number-one prince of darkness.

The film’s most effective star is the nightmarish hamlet, surrounded by trees bleached of leaves, its paths sluggish with wet earth, the off-screen wolves howling as dusk settles on the blue-gray homes. Most of the crew has been around the bloody block with Burton on more than one occasion (and some for more than two decades), hence the feeling of déjà vu, particularly when looking at the film’s inspired design element. Production designer Rick Heinricks’ "stylized naturalism" uses time-proven theatrical means to create unnatural perspective. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (A Little Princess, Like Water for Chocolate) tightly composed color palette captures the landscapes’ agony, while Costume Designer Colleen Atwood’s period garb will probably wrestle one of a few technical nominations the film rightfully merits.

But the weaknesses lie in those talky conspiracy/mystery portions of the story and the development of Depp’s character, reduced to a bumbling ninny at one point, springing back into action the next with faith restored, while often haunted by strange visions featuring Lisa Marie. For action fans, the Headless Horseman rides off with all the aces (the black ones, of course). This mythic creature, as sculpted by Burton and his merry pranksters, proves a terrifying figure, emerging from his womblike netherworld beneath a blood-for-sap "Tree of the Dead" fully mounted on his dark black horse. The thunder/lightning combination that announces his arrival gets a bit tiresome, but when he swings his blade, the decapitations are anything but standard drops in the bucket.

Burton and Depp fans should embrace the weird world of Sleepy Hollow, but other heads in the audience may bob in disappointment, the infrequent droll humor too little to offset the vapid story stretches.

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