As beautifully crafted a film as anyone could ever hope to see, Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” is an entertainingly eccentric horror tale that envelopes the audience in a dreamy and bloody nightmare. At the same time, Washington Irving’s classic story about Ichabod Crane and the fearsome Headless Horseman has been radically reconceived for the express purpose of maximizing the mayhem, a legitimate if very ’90s ploy that puts the picture on a somewhat predictable and repetitive track. Result is a supremely stylish objet d’art that has enough flair, drama and gory action to emerge as a strong, if not sensational, holiday B.O. attraction upon its Nov. 19 release.
In the opulence and extraordinary realization of a quasi-historical world mostly within studio confines, as well as in its bloodthirstiness, “Sleepy Hollow” forcibly recalls “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” whose director, Francis Ford Coppola, is one of the exec producers here.
Re-creating a small Hudson River community of exactly 200 years ago, in the fall of 1799, Burton and his outstanding collaborators have rigorously developed a monochromatic look that is broken only by the intrusion of the color red, which happens on numerous choice occasions. Viewers who relish the sort of seamlessly fabricated experience that the greatest cinema artisans can produce will love every minute of this dazzling display of virtuosity, while gorehounds will have a tasty treat as well.
The credits should perhaps have read “inspired by” rather than “based upon” the Irving story, as script by Andrew Kevin Walker (“Seven”) departs at once from the original by introducing Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) not as a rural teacher but a New York City constable who, by the standards of the day, is overly concerned with such matters as forensic evidence and proof in criminal investigations. As a sort of punishment for his dedication to “scientific” crime-solving techniques, Crane is sent on a two-day journey up the river to “detect” the murderer in three grisly beheadings in the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow, a mostly Dutch community haunted by a violent past.
Welcomed into a festive Halloween party at the home of the village’s most affluent citizen, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), the upright Ichabod learns the story of the Hessian Horseman (Christopher Walken), a German mercenary who slew countless settlers with his unerring swordsmanship on behalf of the English during the Revolutionary War before being killed himself.
Van Tassel and the rest of the town elders insist that the Hessian, back in the form of a ghost, is responsible for the murders, in which the killer leaves behind the bodies but makes off with the heads. Ichabod, a confirmed rationalist, firmly rejects this superstitious folderol, and further unnerves the religiously inclined locals with his elaborate optical investigative equipment and his disinterment of one of the victims to confirm the rumor that she was pregnant when killed.
Ichabod’s innocence is brought to an abrupt end when, in one of the film’s great set pieces, the Headless Horseman thunders into a lovely autumnal hayfield and decapitates the town magistrate (Richard Griffiths), his noggin coming to rest smack between Ichabod’s legs before the rider impales it and gallops away with it. The nonbeliever’s world now completely undermined, Ichabod retreats to his bed in the Van Tassel household, where he is afflicted with increasingly horrific memory nightmares about how his lovely mother (Lisa Marie) was tortured and finally put to death by his righteous preacher father. These events turned him irrevocably against religion and toward pure reason, he eventually explains to Van Tassel’s coolly beautiful daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci), who slowly takes an interest in Ichabod’s investigations.
The Horseman’s attacks are invariably scary and exciting, but after a while it becomes evident that “Sleepy Hollow” is structured along the very familiar lines of so many filmed murder sprees before it. How many more innocent victims must die before the crazed killer is stopped? As a Tim Burton movie and a distinctive period piece to boot, pic sports many unusual flavors and textures that set it apart, but the film is only momentarily ever about anything other than the plot and atmosphere, giving it limited stature and resonance.
One mini-theme here is optics. Ichabod, obviously like Burton himself, is adamant about seeing things his own way, and there are numerous sequences in which devices of visual perception or presentation figure prominently. His refusal to be blinded by naive beliefs helps him see that the Horseman does not slay randomly, but instead selects his victims in ways that ultimately point the finger at one of the village’s most prominent figures as the controlling force behind the killer’s rampages. Pic ends, in a nice millennial touch, with the ushering in of a new century in New York City.
Tousled, obstinate and resolute in his rationalism, Depp is a far cry from the all-angles boniness of Irving’s Ichabod, and sometimes recalls his role in Jim Jarmusch’s Western “Dead Man” as he once again plays a city boy cast into threatening circumstances in the wilds. But the highly adaptable Burton vet is thoroughly engaging as the thoughtful outsider who takes on the literal demon of an insular community; more than once he must overcome his shock and natural physical timidity to rise to the occasion of battling the seemingly indestructible Hessian, and Depp conveys these swings with grace and wit.
A blonde and ripely ethereal Ricci is a fine match for Depp in their tentative relationship and nicely underplays with an effective gravity. Mostly British players, led by the enthusiastic Gambon and Miranda Richardson as his wife, who lurks intriguingly in the background, fill out the excellent supporting cast. With his sheep-head’s wig, Jeffrey Jones, as the local reverend, amusingly looks as much like a cartoon drawing as a man can without heavy makeup, while Walken gives the Hessian his evil all.
Technically, “Sleepy Hollow” resides not in a valley but on a mountain top. Burton’s films are always visual marvels, but the stunning blend of Rick Heinrichs’ production design, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, Colleen Atwood’s costume design, the assorted visual effects and the beautifully calibrated alternation between studio and location work (pic was shot in the U.K., with some followup lensing in New York) takes the picture to a truly rarefied level in the visual department. Danny Elfman’s score adds turbulent excitement with the occasional touch of bombast.