15 November 1999 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

"Sleepy Hollow" pretends to derive from Washington Irving's tale of whimsy and superstition set in post-colonial New York. But director Tim Burton has much more forthrightly designated its true origin: it's a big-budget rendition of a Hammer horror film of the '50s and '60s. Heads will roll indeed.

Those rolling heads and gruesome corpses should spell a boxoffice bonanza for Paramount and Mandalay Pictures. True-blue fans of Burton's phantasmagoric imagination may wring their hands at such a talent lavished upon a silly Gothic tale. But after the tepid boxoffice produced by such glorious lightning bolts as Burton's "Ed Wood" and "Mars Attacks!," who can blame him for opting for commercial success?

Usurping a few names and an incident from Irving's droll bucolic tale, Burton and his writers, Andrew Kevin Walker and Kevin Yagher, have crafted a good old-fashioned slash-and-splatter flick with period costumes. Interestingly though, creative forces within Burton keep tugging in other directions before the Hammer side wins out.

Burton seems to want to create in the character of Ichabod Crane, played by Johnny Depp, a modern-day detective-pathologist attempting to operate in 1799's Hudson River Valley. And there is more than a hint of the conflict -- all too real in American society even today -- between the rational and secular forces and witch-hunting religious fanaticism.

Alas, all this gets thrust aside every time the Headless Horseman comes riding, which is often.

Depp's Ichabod Crane is no longer Irving's ambitious though naive schoolteacher, but rather a New York City constable determined to solve crimes with "modern" methods. He is sent by a forbidding magistrate (Hammer veteran Christopher Lee) to a Dutch settlement named Sleepy Hollow to solve a series of murders, all involving beheadings.

In quick order, he meets the town squire (Michael Gambon), his much younger second wife (Miranda Richardson), his nubile daughter (Christina Ricci), her jealous boyfriend Casper Van Dien), a host of potential killers to rival an Agatha Christie novel and the legend of the Headless Horseman, the malevolent ghost of a savage Hessian soldier beheaded in a Revolutionary War skirmish.

He might, if he were a modern-day film critic, notice other peculiarities in this quiet village, namely the open-bodice "Tom Jones"-like costumes worn by all the women, the open sexuality and, most puzzling of all, the solid physical manifestation of an entity that is supposed to be a ghost in his encounters with the Headless Horseman. There seems to be very little logic to the supernatural wonders of Sleepy Hollow.

There is also a problem in Depp's performance, or nonperformance. The other actors are at least trying to play their foolish characters. But Depp makes such a goof of every scene and emotional moment as to destroy whatever fun one might derive from such Grand Guignol.

The Film Production's design trades in blacks, whites and grays until a what-a-relief scene at the end of the movie in which vibrant colors intrude. Fog settles into the village, graveyard and surrounding forest more or less on a permanent basis, making this a nice, spooky environment for ghosts and goblins and pumpkin heads. If only one didn't expect more from Tim Burton.

SLEEPY HOLLOW

Paramount and Mandalay Pictures

a Scott Rudin/American Zoetrope production

Producers:Scott Rudin, Adam Schroeder

Director:Tim Burton

Writer:Andrew Kevin Walker

Screenwriters:Kevin Yagher, Andrew Kevin Walker

Based on the story by:Washington Irving

Executive producers:Francis Ford Coppola, Larry Franco

Director of photography:Emmanuel Lubezki

Production designer:Rick Heinrichs

Editor:Chris Lebenzon

Music:Danny Elfman

Costumes:Colleen Atwood

Co-producer-human/creature effects:Kevin Yagher

Visual effects supervisor:Jim Mitchell

Special effects supervisor:Joss Williams

Color/stereo

Cast:

Ichabod Crane:Johnny Depp

Katrina Van Tassel:Christina Ricci

Lady Van Tassel:Miranda Richardson

Baltus:Michael Gambon

Brom:Casper Van Dien

Reverend Steenwyck:Jeffrey Jones

Dr. Lancaster:Ian McDiarmid

Notary Hardenbrook:Michael Gough

Burgomaster:Christopher Lee

Headless Horseman:Christopher Walken

Running time -- 100 minutes

MPAA rating: R


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