I admit I had some bias coming in to Sleepy Hollow – I
was psyched for it. Totally psyched. I already had all four of the action
figures, including the deluxe Headless Horseman that included his horse. I had
the poster and the soundtrack. But what of it? Aren’t we movie reviewers
supposed to love movies? And if so, shouldn’t we get excited about them?
However, in the past, I’ve been willing to give somewhat
negative reviews of a film, no matter how much I was looking forward to them
(see The Phantom Menace). But luckily, Sleepy
Hollow didn’t disappoint me in the slightest.
Directed by Tim Burton and written by Kevin Yagher, a long-time
film crewman but first-time screenwriter, Sleepy Hollow plays fast and
loose with the original tale, written by Washington Irving and known in full as The
Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Set in 1799, just before "the dawn of a new
century," the film’s central character is Ichabod Crane (Johhny Depp), who
in the original story was a mild-mannered schoolteacher in the town of Sleepy
Hollow, but here is a New York cop who is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate
some murders involving beheadings.
Unlike the original story, which made it fairly clear that while
the town was virulently superstitious there was little actual evil magic about,
Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is a grove of witches, demons, and gates to Hell. The
plot is simple: Crane must figure out who is carrying out the gruesome
beheadings and capture him. Involved in his quest is Baltus Van Tassel (Michael
Gambon), a rich local baron, and his beautiful daughter, Katrina (Christina
Ricci). Along the way, Crane also enlists the help of a boy whose father is
murdered by the mysterious forces at work, Young Masbath (Marc Pickering).
From the outset, Burton makes it quite clear to the audience
that we are not dealing with the flesh-and-blood murdered that Crane is looking
for, but a ghostly Headless Horseman that mercilessly slays his victims (each
beheading shown entirely in all its gory glory) and carries away their craniums
for unknown purposes. Gone is the theory that the Horseman uses the heads, at
least temporarily, to replace his own (thus making the Horseman’s main way of
killing somewhat less logical, in a minor plot issue); the Horseman’s motives
are unclear as he repeatedly rides out of the forest to claim another victim.
It’s important to note that part of what Burton was going for in
Sleepy Hollow was an homage to the Hammer horror films of the 1950s and
’60s. The gigantic moon, the painted sets, the stilted dialogue – these are all
aspects of those classic British films. Unlike his last effort to capture a
cinematic style of years past – the dismal Mars Attacks – Burton melds
the style of the Hammer films seamlessly into his bizarre microcosm of Sleepy
Depp plays the idiosyncratic constable to a T, making him so
rational, and yet timid, that the simple phrase "It was a Headless
Horseman" becomes the funniest line in the entire film. Ricci, playing the
"beautiful American actress" archetypal role within the Hammer
tradition, is admiringly sweet and sensual despite her big dresses and
deliberately awkward dialogue.
And then there’s the Headless Horseman himself. He is King
Bad-Ass. Riding like a bat out of hell – literally – from his haunted tree, on
his huge steed Daredevil (actually the name of the horse of Ichabod Crane’s
rival for Katrina’s affections, Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien), in the orginal
tale), sword in hand, ready to slay his next victim – the Horseman is truly the
image of the Grim Reaper. It’s worth noting that when in hand-to-hand combat,
the Horseman was played by Ray Park, Star Wars‘ infamous Darth Maul (Park
is given a deliciously ironic chance to give as good as he got in Star Wars
in one action-packed Sleepy Hollow scene). When his head is restored to
him, the Horseman is played by…but that would be telling.
Sleepy Hollow is a wonderfully Gothic fairy tale, rather
gory, but with wonderful characters and an intriguing, if occasionally
confusing, plot. Burton has given us a truly excellent traditional fairy tale,
and that’s a wonder in age where fantasy usually takes on the robes of science
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