I'm looking at the headline in today's copy of the New York
Daily News: "Deranged Man Bashes Woman Over the Head
in Times Square in Broad Daylight." No wonder so many
potential tourists steer clear of the Big Apple. Maybe the
situation was always that way. Why, for example, wouldn't
the entire town of Sleepy Hollow flee to the state's largest
metropolis in 1799 when a major-league slasher in that
minor-league town was lopping off heads wholesale? Nope.
The inbred residents of that village just 2 hours' north of New
York by horse simply hung around refusing to watch their
heads while the propertied officials did their best to cover
Washington Irving told the wonderful tale of Ichabod Crane,
schoolmaster, and his adventures with the headless
horseman in a short story he published in 1812. While this
was hardly a slash-and-burn tale but rather one suited for a
captivated twelve-year-old audience, horror-meister Tim
Burton uses the legend simply as a jumping off point.
Eschewing the Irving subtleties in favor of all the ambiance
that modern cinema technology can afford, Burton, whose
contributions range from "Batman" to "Beetlejuice" and
scoring big with the adult fairy tale "Edward Scissorhands,"
achieves wonders with Rick Heinrich's expressionistic
production design. Alas, the layout loses its novelty after the
first 30 minutes and given the absence of tension--of the
usual false alarms that cause horror stories to raise hairs on
audience heads--"Sleepy Hollow" is both sleepy and hollow.
Burton, using a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker,
transforms Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) from a superstitious
schoolmaster to an enlightened, rationalist New York City
police officer who had testified regularly in favor of a more
scientific treatment of evidence and a less rigid system of
penology. When yet another burglar is arrested and thrown
unceremoniously into a pit resembling a third-world prison,
Crane goes ballistic and is gotten rid of by an
assignment from the judge to investigate the scene of
numerous beheadings in the village of Sleepy Hollow.
Arriving by coach, he meets the local Dutch-American bigwigs
and at a reception is kissed by a lovely, masked reveler,
Katrina Van Tassel--daughter of the prosperous Baltus
(Michael Gambon) and his wife (Miranda Richardson).
Though Katrina has a boy friend, Brom van Brunt (Casper
Van Dien), she switches her romantic loyalties to the
interesting stranger, while Crane employs the latest, turn-of-
the-century instruments (including a grotesque set of
eyeglasses) to examine decapitated bodies.
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is a horror story without
much horror--unless you consider the generic open-necked
victims' cauterized wounds to be anything more than what
you see on a typical day on the hooks of the local butcher
shop. In a scene involving a witch whom Crane consults in
her shack, the head of the sorceress turns into the standard-
issue ghoul, eyes bulging out of sockets, the kind of video-
game image that's wholly laughable rather than dangerously
terrifying. Johnny Depp does a reasonable job of holding
back the giggles at his role, one in which he plays a Sherlock
Holmes who jumps on a bed when he spots a spider and who
is accompanied by a young Dr. Watson in the form of
12-year-old Masbeth (Marc Pickering)--who has been
orphaned as a result of the slasher's deeds. Christopher
Walken looks ridiculous in the construct of the Hessian
soldier who slew scores of enemies with his sword and ax.
After being killed and decapitated himself, he races helter
skelter about the village like an equine chicken without a
head devouring those he has been commanded to kill and
stopping to pick up their heads with his weapon like a Greek
restaurateur spearing a shish kebab.
Burton's supporting cast includes Michael Gambon, who is
villainous enough in his role as the prosperous farmer but not
nearly the scoundrel he portrays in Michael Mann's movie
"The Insider," and Ray Park and Rob Inch do some fancy
equestrian antics for men with no heads on their shoulders.
Missing are Brom's practical jokes on the Yankee
schoolmaster in the original story by Irving, and seriously
underplayed is the rivalry between Brom and Ichabod for the
hand of Katrina Van Tassel. Irving brought out the distinction
of having a special ghost with a definite identity to haunt a
specific locality--a matter of honor and prestige, highly
respected as a folk theme. This subtlety is ravaged in favor
of seemingly indiscriminate butchery and by Burton's need to
abandon literary style in favor of tired imagery.
Copyright © 2000 Harvey Karten