Who better to revamp Washington Irving's classic spook tale of the Headless Horseman than Tim Burton, the modern maestro of movie macabre?
A little tweaking here (a conspiracy plot), a little re-writing there (Ichabod Crane is now a nervous police detective instead of a nervous school teacher) and -- ta-da! -- it's "Sleepy Hollow," a sumptuously stylized, oddly traditional, darkly comical, and unmistakably Burton-esque take on this uniquely American fairy tale.
Taking place in 1799, this inventive reinterpretation of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" -- written by "Fight Club" scripter Andrew Kevin Walker and polished by "Shakespeare In Love" scribe Tom Stoppard -- features Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane, an ungainly, outcast, New York City constable come to the upstate hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a spate of beheadings that local legend has pinned on the noggin-less ghost of mad a Revolutionary War mercenary.
Meticulously analytical and with a penchant for dabbling in the then-embryonic science of forensics, Crane immediately dismisses any supernatural theories and appalls the locals by having the victims' bodies exhumed so he can perform amateur autopsies, using an array of bizarre tools he designed himself.
But the more he delves into the mystery, the more his logical evidence trail points to something not of this world, and before long he's face-to-face -- OK, bad choice of words -- with his headless nemesis, who gallops out of the night perched on a huge black steed and wielding a lethal blade with the acrobatic precision of an 18th Century Darth Maul (no coincidence since Maul actor Ray Park does the Horseman's stunts.)
But while Depp's delightful talent for off-kilter characters lends his Ichabod Crane an appreciable and deliberately unbalanced blend of delicacy, skittish cowardice, determination and curiosity, as the plot marches on much of what's going on around him begins to unravel faster than Ichabod does.
After setting up an engaging intellectual angle with Crane's daring new methods of logic, Burton abandons the intelligent foundation of "Sleepy Hollow," allowing it to become a hard-to-follow, hocus-pocus whodunit, complete with a inheritance conspiracy, an evil local with power over the Horseman, and an I'll- keep- you- alive- while- I- explain- my- diabolical- plan, action movie climax (explosions and the whole nine yards).
The film is also crippled by a terribly contrived romantic subplot involving a miscast Christina Ricci (it pains me to say that), who looks perfectly period but can't manage to wrap her mouth around the movie's formal dialogue or its highly mannered acting style. She falls for Ichabod, much to the chagrin of her beau, played by Casper Van Dien ("Starship Troopers") -- doing his very best Billy Zane-in-"Titanic" imitation. Thankfully, he gets waxed by the Horseman after only three lines of dialogue.
Other players include Miranda Richardson as Ricci's more-than-meets-the-eye stepmother and a razor-toothed, wild-eyed Christopher Walken, who plays the Horseman in flashbacks from before he lost his head.
On the production end of things, "Sleepy Hollow" is a fabulous, high-tech homage to the moody, old-fashioned horror flicks of the 1930s, bent to fit the Burton mold. The pale, moon-lit tones generated by a perma-dusk sky; rich but somber costumes (bad teeth, even!); craggy, foggy, sound stage forests of imposing, twisted, leafless trees -- it's all quite absorbing.
I really tried to like "Sleepy Hollow," but the truth is, without Depp's appeal or Burton's sense of humor and wildly creative style to buoy it, this script would play like one of those over-produced, under-intelligent literature plunders that TV networks run during sweeps week.
Run time: 105 mins
In Theaters: Friday 19th November 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $206.1M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Paramount Pictures, Mandalay Pictures, American Zoetrope, Tim Burton Productions, Karol Film Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 67%
Fresh: 85 Rotten: 41
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane, Ian McDiarmid as Dr. Lancaster, Casper Van Dien as Brom Van Brunt, Michael Gough as Notar Hardenbrook, Christopher Walken as Hessian Horseman, Lisa Marie as Lady Crane, Steven Waddington as Kilian, Christopher Lee as Burgomaster, Miranda Richardson as Crone, Michael Gambon as Baltus Van Tassel, Jeffrey Jones as Reverend Steenwyck, Richard Griffiths as Bürgermeister Phillipse, Christina Ricci as Katrina Van Tassel, Martin Landau as Peter Van Garrett, Marc Pickering as Young Masbath, Claire Skinner as Beth Killian, Alun Armstrong as High Constable, Jessica Oyelowo as Sarah, Mark Spalding as Jonathan Masbath, Peter Guinness as Lord Crane, Tony Maudsley as Van Ripper