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Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow

Total Film

February 2000

Link to Article on External Website

Director Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Christopher Walken
Cert 15

Rating ***

You can picture Tim Burton ticking off all the reasons why he should make Sleepy Hollow: creepy storyline, a choice misfit outsider role for Johnny Depp, gothic designs, sense of displaced reality, and an opportunity to use lots of fog, not to mention black in every scene.

In other words, Burton has chosen to return to the familiar territory that made him famous in the first place, serving up an audience-pleasing peace offering to the vast numbers of die-hard fans who were besotted with Pee-Wee, Batman and Edward Scissorhands, but who deserted him on his two previous films: the brilliant but ignored Ed Wood and the silly all-star folly Mars Attacks!.

As Burton-by-numbers goes, his adaptation of Washington Irving's spook story is a solidly entertaining effort, with more violence and gore than the original tale but less attention paid to the romantic entanglements of Crane and local lass Katrina Van Tassel (Ricci). The film is also brimming with enough twisted and macabre touches to prevent it from being overwhelmed by the distinct whiff of ham and cheese which sometimes threatens to engulf the movie whole.

It's the early sequences that are the most effective, with Burton creating a genuinely eerie mood of menace and dread as the Headless Horseman stalks the dank, gloomy roads and gnarled forests around Sleepy Hollow, lopping the heads off his unfortunate victims before galloping back into the night on his black steed. As bonces become separated from bodies with snowballing frequency, however, and Ichabod uncovers a few unsavoury secrets being concealed by the townspeople, Burton allows it all to slide into full-blown pantomime.

Fitting snugly into this camp vision is Johnny Depp. His portrayal of Ichabod Crane, the effete, forensically minded constable sent by mayor Christopher Lee (one of Burton's many nods to Hammer Horror) to solve the mystery, is hilarious. There's a baroque backstory involving Ichabod's mother (played by Burton's other half, Lisa Marie), but Ichabod is really just a pasty-faced comedy wimp who faints repeatedly, uses his 12-year-old assistant as a human shield and expends far too much energy rejecting paranormal explanations for the Horseman's rampage.

Furthermore, his powers of deduction have everything to do with keeping the plot moving, and not much to do with actual detective work. Depp's reputation as a risk-taker, however, remains intact — he resists all temptation to turn Crane into a dashing hero, with an eccentric performance (not to mention hodge-podge English accent) that will split audiences straight down the middle.

Assembled around Depp is a cavalcade of Burton stalwarts and British character actors, including Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson and Ian McDiarmid, all given ample scope to chew up some scenery — and ostensibly leave you scratching your chin at who the film's other evildoer might be. The Horseman's head-free silhouette can be spotted a mile off, but you won't over-tax your mental abilities working out which townsperson is concocting this evil brew. As for Ricci, she proves to be less feisty and alluring than hoped as Katrina Van Tassel, potentially duplicitous damsel and the apple of Ichabod's eye.

It's down to the Headless Horse-man to make up for all the movie's increasingly convoluted shortcomings, and he's a fiendish, stomping triumph: a truly terrifying spectral madman with a very large collection of heads in his treehouse lair. In the end, Sleepy Hollow is close enough to classic Burton - - lavish sets and costumes, gothy Danny Elfman score, style and atmosphere to spare, wobbly plot all present and correct - to gratify his supporters and frighten a few new ones in the bargain.

Heads do indeed roll in Tim Burton's ghoulish yet whimsical decapitation extravaganza. Taking a cue from The Mummy, Burton cranks up the ham and the horror in a spoofy, occasionally thrilling ghost story.

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