Sleepy Hollow (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow is as stylish and atmospheric as any motion picture to arrive in theaters this year. Unfortunately, those aspects are its lone strengths. The film suffers from tepid performances, feebly drawn characters, and a meandering narrative. Regardless of how many eerie, fog-shrouded forest sequences, gruesome decapitations, and gorgeous matte paintings Burton offers us, Sleepy Hollow's look cannot obfuscate its numerous, glaring weaknesses.

When I was about eight years old, I became enthralled by Washington Irving's story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." In a one month span (around Halloween), I devoured the tale six or seven times. Since then, I don't think I have read the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, but the particulars are lodged in my brain, and, while Burton draws upon many of them (especially character names and general situations), he primarily uses Irving's story as a jumping-off point. And, while "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is too brief to fill out a full-length feature film without significant padding, this version (credited to screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker) does a great disservice to its source material.

Sleepy Hollow opens with a creepy sequence of great promise. The year is 1799, and the setting is a misty road near the small upstate New York hamlet of Sleepy Hollow. A coach carrying the wealthiest man in the district (Martin Landau, in a cameo for Burton, the man who directed him to an Oscar in Ed Wood) is set upon by a mysterious, headless rider, who, with a slash of his sword, deprives Sleepy Hollow of its most prominent citizen. Other equally grizzly deaths follow, and, in all cases, the killer takes the victim's head with him. The men and women of Sleepy Hollow are convinced that they are being haunted by the demonic spirit of a dead Hessian trooper who was slain in the Western Woods - a place into which no sane person will venture.

Enter Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a constable sent by a judge in New York City to solve the murders. Ichabod initially scoffs at the idea of a supernatural being, claiming that science can explain any odd features about the deaths and modern detective methods will lead him to the killer. At first, it seems that the Horseman may actually be a local hotshot, Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien), in costume, but Ichabod soon learns that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. As his investigation continues and the headless body count mounts, Ichabod finds himself falling in love with Katrina Van Tassel (a blond Christina Ricci), the daughter of his landlord, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon).

For about 30 minutes, Sleepy Hollow is creepy and effective, due largely to Burton's vision, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's camera work, Danny Elman's score, and some impressive production design (by Rick Heinrichs). However, there comes a point in every film, and Sleepy Hollow is no exception, when the story and characters have to take center stage - something that never happens here. Most of Sleepy Hollow consists of Ichabod acting like a second-rate Sherlock Holmes working to uncover the "shocking" truth of why the Horseman is on a rampage. There's also a great deal of pointless running around as Ichabod, typically accompanied by a young lad named Masbeth (Marc Pickering), chases after and is chased by the Headless Horseman. These scenes are devoid of suspense or tension, and, after we've seen the Horseman a few times, the sense of ominous menace evaporates, leaving nothing in its wake.

The screenplay attempts to flesh out Ichabod by giving him a tragic backstory that is divulged through flashbacks. It doesn't really work, however - the character remains terminally bland. The Ichabod/Katrina romance is underwritten and underplayed. There's no chemistry evident between Ricci and Depp, so it becomes virtually impossible to accept either passion or tenderness in their interaction. Although Ricci is one of the most talented acting representatives of her generation, this does not stand out as one of her better performances. Katrina has a tendency to fade into the background even when she's supposed to be the center of the scene. The only time she holds the spotlight is during her initial appearance, when, blindfolded, she bestows upon Ichabod an unsolicited kiss.

Two of the most intriguing aspects of Irving's story are largely discarded in the movie. The first, the rivalry between Brom and Ichabod for Katrina's hand, is given a brief airing before being definitively dispatched. The second, the question of whether the Headless Horseman is a genuine demon or just a man in costume, is answered before the opening credits roll. Of course, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is a ghost story, not a murder mystery. With its bloody pile of decapitated corpses, Sleepy Hollow resembles nothing more than a beautifully crafted, period piece slasher movie. And it's about as interesting as one would expect from something with that description.

Burton has assembled an impressive supporting cast, with the exception of hunky Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers), who is only in about four scenes. In addition to Michael Gambon, several other well-known British actors are on hand, including Miranda Richardson (as Baltus' wife), Michael Gough (Alfred from the Batman movies, playing the local notary), and Ian McDiarmid (The Phantom Menace's Darth Sidious). Both Christopher Walken and Christopher Lee have cameos - the former as the Horseman before losing his head and the latter as the New York judge who sends Ichabod to Sleepy Hollow.

For some incomprehensible reason, Sleepy Hollow is being released in mid-November instead of four weeks earlier during the pre-Halloween season, when it probably would have been guaranteed a healthy week or two at the box office. Set up against James Bond, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Buzz Lightyear, the Headless Horseman would appear to be overmatched. Things might be different if Sleepy Hollow was a better film, but, aside from its consistently appealing visual elements and portentous atmosphere, Burton's latest is as hollow as a Jack O'Lantern.

Sleepy Hollow (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1999-11-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1