|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 01 December 2006|
“Sleepy Hollow” is another in the remarkable series of movies that unite director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp. They work remarkably well together, apparently sharing a somewhat macabre sense of humor and love of scary movies. This is Burton’s attempt to out-Hammer a Hammer movie—Hammer stalwart Christopher Lee is in the cast—and one of the best-looking films he’s done.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Rick Heinrichs (who worked with Burton when they were both film students) give the film a burnished sheen, with everything except blood in muted, autumnal tones. Forests are threaded with fog, every acre of ground outside the small town of Sleepy Hollow is ankle-deep in fallen leaves, and the trees are mostly bare. The visual and dramatic tones of the film are perfectly matched, with the design just at the verge of excessive, while the film itself introduces comedy at unexpected moments. The movie is hardly a comedy, however, though it is amusing.
It’s only very loosely based on Washington Irving’s original story; in that, spindly schoolteacher Ichabod Crane is frightened clear out of town by the appearance of, as the title had it, a headless horseman apparently intent on lopping off his head. The story was filmed as a TV movie a couple of times; in the silent era, Will Rogers starred in an adaptation, and in the late 1940s Walt Disney’s team did a memorably comic version of the tale featuring Bing Crosby as the unlikely but welcome voice of Crane. (And a song with lyrics like “With a hip hip and a clippity clop, he’s out lookin’ for a top to chop....”)
Andrew Kevin Walker’s script mostly ignores Irving’s story and, somewhat unfortunately, turns the whole thing into a very elaborate murder mystery in which the murder weapon is the sword-wielding ghost of a vision Hessian horseman (Christopher Walken, with piranha teeth) slain in the Revolutionary War. Here, Ichabod Crane (Depp) is a humorless New York police detective with a mania for logic and scientific means of inquiry. He’s a bit of a loose cannon in the department, so a magistrate (Christopher Lee) sternly orders him to the town of Sleepy Hollow, two days’ travel north of Manhattan, to investigate reports that a headless horseman is lopping off the heads of the mostly Dutch villagers.
No sooner has the somewhat shy Crane arrived in the quaint village than he’s welcomed to a Halloween party where he meets flirtatious Katarina Van Tassel (a blonde Christina Ricci), the nubile daughter of local bigwig Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), now married to his second wife (Miranda Richardson). Crane meets with the village elders—Van Tassel, Rev. Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones, in the movie’s best and funniest wig, and there are plenty of wigs), Magistrate Phillipse (Richard Griffiths), Dr. Lancaster (Ian McDiarmid, the Emperor from the Star Wars movies) and notary Hardenbrook (Hammer veteran Michael Gough).
There’s another beheading, leaving young Masbath (Marc Pickering) fatherless; the boy latches on to a flattered Crane. Crane investigates with his unusual and self-made detective tools, which include an impressive pair of eyeglasses with a telescopic lens. The horseman has been carrying away the heads he decapitates, and the same is true here, but Crane is able to deduce some interesting (but useless) information. He’s firmly, even serenely, convinced that nothing supernatural is going on. Occasionally assisted by Katrina, he investigates further.
Somewhere in here, Irving’s story is enacted in brief as Crane is confronted by a Headless Horseman on a covered bridge—but we learn almost immediately this is local Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Diem), annoyed with the attention Katrina and Ichabod are paying one another. But one evening as he’s walking with Magistrate Phillipse in a misty field, the Headless Horseman himself gallops up, lops off Phillipse’s head and, impaling it where it lies—between Crane’s legs—makes off with it. Now Crane is convinced. And terrified. At first he can’t even get out of bed, he’s so overcome by fear, but even though he’s eccentric, he’s no coward and soon is asking who of the remaining village elders will accompany him to the western forest, said to be the lair of the Headless Horseman.
Naturally, none of them agree, though Katrina is eager to help, as is Young Masbath. They meet a witch who goes through some weird paces, and a tree stuffed with the missing heads. And here comes the Headless Horseman—but Crane now realizes the Horseman is seeking out specific people, not just killing whomever he encounters on his nocturnal rides.
Though the movie is never actually scary—except when Christopher Walken snarls in closeup—it’s lots of fun, and to a degree both echoes and expands on the familiar look of Hammer movies. “Sleepy Hollow” was shot almost entirely in England, where an entire village was built in an appropriate forest. There’s also a huge, disused windmill strongly resembling the one seen in the climax of Universal’s original “Frankenstein” back in 1931. Animation fan Burton even echoes the Disney cartoon, in a shot of a flung jack-o-lantern and frogs that seem to croak “Headless Horseman.”
Depp is again outstanding, and funny, in another of the eccentric characters he excels in playing. His Ichabod Crane isn’t much like the spindly scarecrow of the Irving story, but he’s fascinating in his own way, both resolute and frightened, placing enormous faith in the workings of science. The movie didn’t really need the occasional flashbacks to his childhood, when he saw his mother (Lisa Marie) tormented by his religious-fanatic father. The story, concocted by makeup expert Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker (“Se7en”) isn’t an improvement on the Irving original, which is really an anecdote. The stretching and revisions force an awkward, standard, mystery format on the whole thing, but it’s clear that Burton doesn’t really care about that side of thing.
He cares about how things look, how the fog lies among the trees (both in a real forest and on a well-designed set), how to make Crane funny and interesting, how to make coach chases exciting, how to present the fearsome Horseman himself. “Sleepy Hollow” is a terrific film to watch, but it sometimes stumbles over its own feet in trying to play out the burdensome story.
However, in terms of the high-definition qualities of Blu-Ray, “Sleepy Hollow” is an inspired choice. Burton is already one of those directors who loves sets full of fiddly little details, of costumes with a great deal of texture and character, of people with unusual faces, sets with figures worked into them (Burton loves spirals). This is one of the few releases in high definition (which includes Blu-Ray) that has a lot of nighttime scenes where the use of high def really pays off. “Sleepy Hollow” is an exceptionally rich-looking movie, full of wild visions—no two heads are lopped off in exactly the same way, and there are a lot of beheadings—and eccentric characters. It’s grand fun, perfect for a good home theater system—just don’t worry about the plot.