Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Andrew Kevin Walker (based on the story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving)
Stars: Johnny Depp (Ichabod Crane), Christina Ricci (Katrina Van Tassel), Casper Van Dien (Brom Van Brunt), Miranda Richardson (Lady Van Tassel), Michael Gambon (Baltus Van Tassel), Marc Pickering (Young Masbeth), Christopher Walken (Headless Horseman), Michael Gough (Hardenbrook), Christopher Lee (Burgomaster), Jeffrey Jones (Steenwyck), Lisa Marie (Lady Crane)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1999
Country: USA
Sleepy Hollow Poster

Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" is a wildly imaginative reinvention of Washington Irving's classic campfire ghost story about the Headless Horseman terrorizing a small, northeastern hamlet in the late 1700s. Burton and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker ("Seven")--with a little help from Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love") who contributed an uncredited rewrite--take the bare bones of the original story and reinvigorate them as an action-adventure horror story with a twisting mystery buried at its core. Although at times it comes off as more confusing than it needs to be, "Sleepy Hollow" is still an exciting, often bizarre ride, replete with humor, horror, and atmosphere to spare.

Ichabod Crane, the nervous schoolteacher at the center of the tale, is here re-envisioned as a New York constable played by Johnny Depp in a studiously mannered, but effective performance. Ichabod is a dedicated disciple of the Enlightenment who argues for forensic analysis in a time when torture devices were still used to extract confessions from prisoners. But, because this is a Tim Burton movie, nothing is played absolutely straight, and the movie has fun with Ichabod's scientific seriousness by outfitting him with a box of forensic tools of his own design that look like they were snatched from a gynecological table in David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers" (1988).

Ichabod is sent to the small, mostly Dutch farming hamlet of Sleepy Hollow in upstate New York to investigate a series of murders. All the victims were cleanly decapitated, and, as Ichabod finds out when he arrives in the spooked village, all of the heads are missing. He is informed by some of the town's most prominent citizens--including the wealthy Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), Hardenbrook, the local notary (Michael Gough), and Steenwyck, the town's minister (Jefferey Jones)--that the murderer is the Headless Horseman, a rampaging phantom who lops off his victims' heads and rides back to hell with them.

Despite obvious fears, Ichabod is determined to uncover the mystery, declaring that he will find a rational explanation for it all. Of course, there is no rational explanation, and it isn't long before Crane comes face-to-face with his headless nemesis and is convinced (in rather humorous fashion) that ghouls do indeed exist. All his city training has left him no match for the specters of the night, but he proceeds forth anyway.

The story manages to work in a romance for Ichabod with Van Tassel's daughter, Katrina (Christina Ricci), which naturally creates a rivalry between Ichabod and Katrina's boyfriend, Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien). This is by far the weakest aspect of the story because it feels the most forced. There was a romance in the original Washington Irving tale, but it doesn't work very well here. By turning Ichabod into a dedicated but nervous Sherlock Holmes-type, the screenplay doesn't leave much room for effective romance. (However, Walker does manage to work in an interesting Freudian subtext by having Ichabod coming to terms with repressed memories about his earth-loving mother, who was murdered in gruesome fashion by his father for witchcraft.)

Decidedly more effective is Tim Burton's direction and Rick Heinrichs' fantastic production design (Heinrichs also designed the sets for Burton's "Edward Scissorhands"). Shot almost entirely on sound stages, Burton and Co. create the kind of creepy atmosphere that makes one's flesh crawl. Gnarled trees, gray skies, crackling leaves, spooky sounds--these are all the most basic elements of an old-fashioned ghost story, and while the makers of "The Blair Witch Project" invigorated those generic elements with documentary-like realism, Burton and his group do just the opposite by heightening the aesthetic, sometimes surrealistic appeal. Shot in foggy tones of blue and gray by Emmanuel Lubezki ("Great Expectations," "A Walk in the Clouds"), much of "Sleepy Hollow" looks like the paintings of Romantic landscape artists like J.M.W. Turner. The movie's atmosphere has a hypnotic, nightmarish quality that enhances the fear and contrasts with much of the movie's offbeat humor.

Of course, contrasting with all that blue and gray is a lot of red. If you don't like gore, avoid "Sleepy Hollow" because Burton seems to have taken extra delight in depicting decapitation from every possible angle. With digital effects he can follow the Horseman's blade as it separates a character from his or her head in blood-spattering detail. Thankfully, Burton doesn't go completely overboard, but he gives us enough effects to get the job done.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about "Sleepy Hollow" is what a good action movie it is. Burton showed a flair for directing action sequences in "Batman" (1989) and a flair for parodying them in "Mars Attacks!" (1996). Here, he films the action with straight-arrow reckless abandon, and the pounding chase at the end of the film, with Ichabod on a runaway stagecoach with the Headless Horseman charging behind him is one the most exhilarating action setpieces I've seen in a movie this year.

If the end turns out to be a little too conventional in its clumsiness (I can't remember the last time I saw a talking villain explain so much all at once), Burton can be forgiven because everything before it was so effective.


Widescreen: 1.85:1
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; Dolby Surround
Languages: English, French
Subtitles: English
Extras: Running audio commentary with director Tim Burton; two theatrical trailers; cast and crew interviews; "Behind the Legend" making-of documentary; cast bios; photo gallery
Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Video: The anamorphic widescreen picture on this DVD does an excellent job of capturing cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's dark, desaturated photography. Many of the scenes are virtually colorless, which is the intended look of the film (in other words, don't try to adjust the color level on your TV). The only moments of vivid color are any scenes involving blood and the flashback sequences of Ichabod's mother (which is an interesting contrast to another Tim Burton film, "Edward Scissorhands," in which the majority of the film was shot in strikingly bold colors while the flashbacks were desaturated). The picture is uniformly excellent overall, with good detail and contrast, especially in the many shadows.

Audio: The Dolby 5.1 mix is rich and aggressive without being pushy or overbearing; it makes full use of all the speakers. The creepy scenes that take place in the haunted Western Woods are especially good in creating an ambient environment of crackling leaves and whispering wind. Danny Elfman's Gothic, chanting musical score sounds wonderful; the haunted voices in the music fill the room with an eerie vibration. The subwoofer also gets a good workout whenever the Headless Horseman rides across the screen.

Extras: Finally, Paramount has delivered a disc that is both first-rate technically (in terms of picture and sound) and has a solid set of extras. Although nowhere on the disc does it mention the phrase "Special Edition," this DVD of "Sleepy Hollow" certainly qualifies as one. While director Tim Burton's running audio commentary is a good addition, it is surprisingly dry for such an energetic man, and it is punctuated with too many long periods of silence. The exclusive "Behind the Legend" featurette is much better; it is not the usual 10-minute piece of extended advertising, but is rather an enjoyable 30-minute documentary that gives a good overview of the film's production, ranging from the construction of the elaborate sets to the special effects designed by Kevin Yagher for the film's gruesomely effective beheadings. The disc also contains roughly 11 minutes worth of interviews with cast and crew, as well as two theatrical trailers, a few cast biographies, and a photo gallery.

©1999,2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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