Looking back on my childhood, one of the most vivid memories in the world of
film or television that I have is watching the 30-minute animated film, "The
Legend of Sleepy Hollow," based on the haunting Washington Irving story,
around Halloween. I haven't seen it in many years, but it has been engraved
into my mind for always. After many years of rumors and delays, the
live-action version, "Sleepy Hollow," has finally arrived, and it is a visual
masterpiece, dark and eerily beautiful in its cinematography and production
design, and sumptuous in its costumes. But seriously, what did you expect
coming from the genius mind of filmmaker Tim Burton, who excels in creating
brilliant new worlds and feasts for the eyes?
What "Sleepy Hollow" isn't is an adaptation of the Irving story. Aside from
the key plot point of a headless horseman who prowls the countryside of the
farming community, Sleepy Hollow, circa 1799, the film is only very loosely
related to its source material. The main character, Ichabod Crane (Johnny
Depp), is the same, but he has been transformed from a gangly schoolteacher
into a constable who investigates the murders that have been plaguing Sleep
Hollow, each one of the victims' heads severed and missing.
The element that the film does evoke from the story, which I have read
countless times, is its overall atmosphere and mystery, and the somehow
disturbing nature of its premise. Burton could have easily gone the "safe"
root and made a PG-13 movie where each of the beheadings are shown offscreen,
but that would be cheating. He realizes that since the whole story revolves
around a phantom who lops off people's heads, he at least owes it to his
audience to show every swing, slash, and chop. As is, the MPAA has given the
picture, which is in the true tradition of the classic, campy Hammer films,
an R-rating, but despite the frequent blood, there isn't anything graphic
about it, and a 13-year-old would unquestionably be able to handle the murder
Certain images will stay with me for some time to come: the indelible opening
scene amidst a scarecrow-filled cornfield; the fog that subtly sweeps in
around the candlelight as the Horseman approaches; the gloomy autumn forests;
the lyrical, slightly askew flashbacks to Lady Crane; and Christopher Walken,
frightening and perfectly cast as the Horseman before his own death, complete
with razor-sharp teeth and demonic eyes. Kudos must go out to director of
photography Emmanuel Zubezki and production designer Rick Heinrichs for their
astounding work that deserves to be remembered at Oscar time. Burton alum
Danny Elfman should also be mentioned for his lavish, stirring music score.
As much as it has potential, "Sleepy Hollow" is ultimately one of Burton's
weakest films, not as emotionally satisfying as 1990's poetic "Edward
Scissorhands," not as entertaining and memorable as 1988's "Beetlejuice," and
nowhere near the classic that 1985's comedic tour de force "Pee Wee's Big
Adventure" is. Putting into consideration that I've liked every major Burton
film except 1989's original "Batman," this is not as much of a criticism as
it is an observation. "Sleepy Hollow" is a fine horror film that would have
fit better with Halloween than Thanksgiving, but is, nonetheless, a creative
Where the film might have been improved is in its screenplay, by Andrew Kevin
Walker, which feels a little rushed and doesn't give most of the characters
enough material to work with. In "Edward Scissorhands," for example, each
role, right down to the smallest one, was distinct and impressionable. Here,
they are painfully thin, and you never really get a sense of who they
are--that is, except for the three main characters.
Johnny Depp, working with Burton for the third time (after "Edward
Scissorhands" and 1994's "Ed Wood"), gives, coincidentally, his third
performance that really stands out from the rest. Depp wisely chooses not to
imitate the description of Ichabod described by Washington Irving, instead
keeping him in spirit and creating his own individual personality.
Christina Ricci, who in the last two years has shed her child image to become
a respectable adult actress, is angelic and suitably innocent as Katrina Van
Tassel, the exact antithesis of her slutty, meanspirited character of Deedee
in 1998's "The Opposite of Sex." Previously appearing in the Burtonesque "The
Addams Family," Ricci, like Depp and Winona Ryder, is an ideal casting choice
for a Burton film.
Finally, Miranda Richardson, as Lady Van Tassel, Katrina's stepmother, is
spellbinding once her part comes to the forefront in the climax. When a key
twist occurs near the end, the film stood on that fine line that could have
easily wavered into the deep end of corniness, but it avoids this unfortunate
fate and remains nothing less than thrilling.
"Sleepy Hollow" is a horror-fantasy that all involved should be
wholeheartedly proud to be a part of. In today's times, new visions and
landscapes are difficult to come by, but every few years, Tim Burton comes
through and proves there are sights that have never been seen before on such
a breathtaking level. "Sleepy Hollow," like 1992's "Bram Stoker's Dracula,"
is an invigorating, sophisticated horror film that confirms you don't need a
group of dimwitted teens being stalked and slashed to be successful.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman