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Sleepy Hollow

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Sleepy Hollow

Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci
Director: Tim Burton
Rated: R
RunTime: 100 Minutes
Release Date: November 1999
Genre: Horror

*Also starring: Casper Van Dien, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Marc Pickering, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, Jeffrey Jones, Lisa Marie

Review by UK Critic
3 stars out of 4

Washington Irving's short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", first published in 1819, is a well-respected folk tale of supernatural secrets, and has survived the generations long enough to spawn several film adaptations -- among them an Emmy-winning mini-series for kids and a Disney animation. When Tim Burton, that distinctive director of twisted heroic journeys and gothic fantasies, decided to do his own remake of the Irving work, the project was expected to be his prestigious bid for Oscar success. If David Lynch can make a subtle movie with a premise as weird as that of "The Straight Story", people thought, surely Tim Burton can take a delicate approach to a classic?

Actually, this "Sleepy Hollow" is as Burtonesque as possible, a gory special-effects extravaganza set in 1799 that plays like a cross between Thomas Hardy and "The Evil Dead". Tim has determined to stay in his own wild world, and along with his screenwriters, Andrew Kevin Walker and Kevin Yagher, has confidently shuffled around the details of Irving's plot for his own purposes. Even the image of the famous literary figure Ichabod Crane has been altered -- he's no longer a lanky, curious schoolteacher who lives where the story is set, but a clumsy New York City police constable played by Johnny Depp.

Burton and Depp's Crane travels to the village of Sleepy Hollow to investigate the murders of three local men -- all of whom were found in the woods without heads. The town elders -- Van Tassell (Michael Gambon), Hardenbrook (Michael Gough), Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones) and Phillipse (Richard Griffiths) -- inform Crane that they suspect the legendary 'Headless Horsemen' of the crimes, a warrior ghost who is said to stalk and decapitate the inhabitants of the area in search of his own noggin. But the constable does not want to listen, claiming to be a man of science and reason, and searching for a human culprit.

There is fun to be had in just watching Crane try to operate his newfangled scientific gadgets, which are elaborately designed for no visible purpose, with windows and panels and knobs aplenty, which constantly spring out of his control. Depp plays the character as a clearly preposterous man who nonetheless attempts to maintain serious authority, and who rigidly keeps eyes wide open, head upright and mouth poised properly even while cowering from a spider, or shrieking in peril under bed sheets.

The amusingly clumsy fellow soon learns that the Headless Horseman is indeed a real figure, and also finds such sights as a witch and a magical tree. Crane carries out silly interrogations, investigates town records and digs up the victims' graves for further research, getting closer to the explanation behind Sleepy Hollow's odd events, and to a violent confrontation with the villain responsible. There are slow patches, and at times the film gets tangled up in unnecessary confusing details on the way to its simple resolution. But the payoff redeems the flaws, thanks to Burton's visuals, which are not inaccurate to the location and period, but are larger than life, with the depth of Emmanuel Lubezki's photography slightly swelling every image and casting a sinister blue mist over the night air. When the horseman jumps out from these clouds, the camera rushes around in jarring close-ups to follow the havoc he wreaks, and this makes for stunning action sequences.

Admittedly, I expected terrific production values and an amusing Johnny Depp performance from "Sleepy Hollow". Burton, as I keep stressing, is one of the most visually astute of all working filmmakers, and Depp has performed creatively in the challenging title roles of the director's "Edward Scissorhands" and "Ed Wood". The pleasant surprise here is Christina Ricci, a young actress whose recent persona has only been fit for satire, with its rebellious, dead-eyed, flat-voiced arrogance. She is sincere and subtle as Katrina, the innocent maiden who loves and protects Icabod Crane, displaying versatility I believed her to have lost.

No doubt Ricci was just so amazed by the movie's carefully constructed atmosphere that she could not stand in the way of it with her usual distracting sarcasm. "Sleepy Hollow" proves -- as do "Pee Wee's Big Adventure", "Batman", "Edward Scissorhands" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" -- that the offbeat crannies of Tim Burton's mind are worth visiting, and he knows how to take us into them.

Copyright 2000 UK Critic

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