Genre: Horror and Fantasy Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min.
Release Date: November 19th, 1999 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Tim Burton Actors: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Casper Van Dien, Michael Gambon, Christopher Walken, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Michael Gough, Ian McDiarmid, Christopher Lee
hen Peter Van Garrett’s last will and testament is rushed by carriage through a particularly dark and gloomy patch of road in Sleepy Hollow, the coachman’s head is severed clean off, leaving the sole passenger to jump to safety in a cornfield adorned with pumpkin-headed scarecrows. But it’s a painfully temporary reprieve. A horseman wielding an inexplicably sharp sword lops off the poor man’s head with a single stroke.
Meanwhile, in New York City in 1799, Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp, something of a weak point, as he’s unable to embody Ichabod in any way other than playing his usual persona) supports science and cutting edge techniques to solve murders, while the rest of the elderly officials in the Municipal Watchhouse prefer torture and antiquated procedures. “I stand up for sense and justice!” Crane insists, but he’s nevertheless commanded by the burgomaster (Christopher Lee) to head to Sleepy Hollow, a town upstate in the Hudson Islands, mostly populated by the Dutch. The farming community has already had three persons murdered – decapitated, in fact – which should be the perfect opportunity for Crane to practice his newfangled ways of sleuthing.
Once the hapless gumshoe arrives, he’s introduced to a suspicious assortment of powdered-wig-wearing elders, including Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones), Magistrate Philipse (Richard Griffiths), Dr. Lancaster (Ian McDiarmid), and notary Hardenbrook (Michael Gough). Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson) and her daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci), as well as her suitor Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien), and an assortment of fearful townsfolk also populate the bustling local inn. Truly, everyone is a suspect. But Baltus insists that the real culprit is the ghost of a Hessian mercenary (Christopher Walken) who was himself beheaded long ago and now stalks the grounds in vengeance.
Based on Washington Irving’s familiar story, which is perhaps most memorably depicted in Disney’s cartoon adaptation, this grim, gothic tale appears tailor-made for the likes of director Tim Burton. Brutal violence, desaturated colors that give a virtually black-and-white cinematographic appearance, eccentric characters, hints of the supernatural, fantasy/nightmare sequences, and excessive amounts of fog feel right at home in Burton’s considerably mature update to the classic horror yarn. The sets, settings, makeup, and costumes are also exceptional (the brief moments of CG are not), lending a visual authenticity to the amusingly spooky atmosphere (which is intermittently sprinkled with morbid comic relief).
While the concepts of superstition versus pragmatism, witchcraft versus science, and reason versus faith (and heaven versus hell) are interesting (though certainly not unique), particularly amid the premise of a monstrous murderer (or an unearthly one, not too dissimilar from Pumpkinhead), it’s obvious that the basic storyline isn’t enough to compose an entire feature. The writers feel obligated to tack on extra subplots to complicate the bloodthirsty slayings and the ghostly legend. Not only is the mystery of the killer (and the intricate otherworldly implications) afoot, but there’s also a mystery surrounding Crane’s tormented past, which has shaped his drive for technical detection. However, even as the conspiratorial relationships unravel – and the suspects diminish one by one, losing their heads in the process – it’s the creative violence and the set and character designs that prove to be most fascinating (as well as the unexpectedly action-packed yet geographically nonsensical climax).
– Mike Massie