Friday November 19, 1999
Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow." It's a bemused truth-in-advertising warning from a director who's told interviewers, "I've always wanted to make a movie where one of the characters didn't have a head." With more than a dozen decapitations to its credit, "Sleepy Hollow" surely made its creator happy, but how pleased others will be depends on their tolerance for the ghoulish and the grotesque.
An exquisitely mounted effort created to the exact specifications of an adroit director whose sensibility is truly bizarre, "Sleepy Hollow" is kind of an ultimate Tim Burton movie. More creepy and flesh-crawling than overwhelmingly gory, it nevertheless takes pride in characters who get splattered with blood as often as take-out fries get doused with catsup.
Coexisting with all this is Burton's wacky tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that ensures that eyes will roll as well as heads. And the film's look is so exceptional that it's easy to imagine Burton as a medieval monk, spending endless happy hours illuminating a manuscript with a fiendishly detailed panorama depicting the tortures of the damned.
"Sleepy Hollow," as every schoolchild used to know, is taken from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the 1820 Washington Irving short story animated by Disney once upon a time. IchabodCrane is still the leading character, but given the involvement of both Burton and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker ("Seven," "Fight Club"), the point has been changed and the ambience considerably darkened.
Schoolteacher no longer, the film's Crane is now a crusading 1799 crime-stopper, a hotshot Manhattan constable who believes in rational methods of detection, much to the disgust of his supervisor (played by British Hammer Films veteran and Burton idol Christopher Lee). "I stand up for sense and justice," Crane proclaims. "To solve crimes we must use our brains," not to mention the cases full of chemicals and strange optical equipment he's invented himself.
As connected to Burton as De Niro once was to Scorsese, Depp has often done his best work ("Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood") for this director, and "Sleepy Hollow" follows that form. Despite being a prissy, self-satisfied know-it-all as well as a bit of a prig, Depp's Ichabod is always engaging and his increased discomfort level as the film progresses is consistently amusing.
Crane's superiors don't agree with his advanced ideas, however, and they assign him to a dead-end case (so to speak) in the isolated farming community of Sleepy Hollow in the wilds of upstate New York. Three people have had their heads lopped off (including "Ed Wood" co-star Martin Landau in an unbilled cameo) and Crane has to figure out who the culprit is.
Up in Sleepy Hollow Crane bunks with the Van Tassels, the town's wealthiest family, including husband Baltus (Michael Gambon); his wife, Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson); and their daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci, unexpectedly blond and surprisingly neutral in the film's twisted equivalent of a Sandra Dee role).
Horrified at the carnage, the townspeople know exactly who the culprit is: a carnage-loving long-dead Hessian mercenary nicknamed the Headless Horseman (played in flashback by a vampirish Christopher Walken, in reality afraid of horses) who filed his teeth down to little points just for kicks and was finally killed during the Revolutionary War and buried in the Western Woods near town, "a haunted place where brave men will not venture."
Ever the rationalist, Depp (oh ye of little faith) refuses to believe that a spirit is doing all this damage. "We have murders in New York without benefit of ghouls and goblins," he huffily insists, but soon enough he finds that, then as now, people from New York don't know quite as much as they think.
Ravishingly photographed in rich muted color by Emmanuel Lubezki ("A Little Princess," "Like Water for Chocolate"), "Sleepy Hollow" is often carried by its brooding, autumnal atmosphere, enhanced by composer Danny Elfman, production designer Rick Heinrichs and costume designer Colleen Atwood. Sleepy Hollow looks so gorgeous (albeit a bit sinister) that hordes of New Yorkers would be looking to purchase second homes there if it hadn't been built from scratch on a 20-acre estate north of London.
Though "Sleepy Hollow's" scares start out on the genteel side, the film gets creepier and creepier as it goes on and Burton, doing what he does best, relentlessly cranks up the volume on the weirdness. Whatever work of literature he may turn to next, don't expect it to be by Jane Austen.
Sleepy Hollow, 1999. R, for graphic horror, violence and gore, and for a scene of sexuality. Paramount Pictures and Mandalay Pictures present a Scott Rudin/American Zoetrope production, released by Paramount. Director Tim Burton. Producers Scott Rudin, Adam Schroeder. Executive producers Francis Ford Coppola, Larry Franco. Screenplay Andrew Kevin Walker. Screen story by Kevin Yagher & Andrew Kevin Walker. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Editor Chris Lebenzon. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Rick Heinrichs. Art directors John Dexter, Ken Court, Andrew Nicholson. Set decorator Peter Young. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane. Christina Ricci as Katrina Van Tassel. Miranda Richardson as Lady Van Tassel. Michael Gambon as Baltus Van Tassel. Casper Van Dien as Brom. Jeffrey Jones as Reverend Steenwyck.