1999, R, 105 min. Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Casper Van Dien, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, Jeffrey Jones, Lisa Marie.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 19, 1999
You'll notice Washington Irving's name is absent from the title of Burton's new film. That's due in no small part to the fact that this version of the story owes less to Irving's original tale than to screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) and co-scenarist/special effects guru/co-producer Kevin Yagher's twisty new take on the tale, which includes a host of new additions to the Irving's bare-bones storyline. Most noticeable is the transformation of Ichabod Crane (Depp, taking his cues from Jeffrey Combs in Re-Animator, I think) from recalcitrant New England schoolmarm to New York City police constable. Despised by his superiors (one of whom is an aged Christopher Lee, late of pretty much every Hammer horror film ever made) for his newfangled, Sherlock Holmesian, rationalist ideas about law and order and the rights of the accused, Crane is sent to the fog-bound upstate hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to discover the identity of a mysterious killer who has a penchant for lopping off and absconding with his victim's noggins: the headless horseman, I presume. (On a side note, the horseman, the shade of a bloodthirsty Hessian once in the employ of the King's Redcoats, is played with vampiric-toothed glee by Christopher Walken -- it's a startlingly silly turn for the actor, but, surprise, it works. Yet another Walken character you'd hate to meet in a dark alley.) Once in Sleepy Hollow, Crane wastes no time in proving himself to be an utter coward, fainting at every turn, and even, at one point, cowering beneath his bedcovers while babbling, “You don't understand! He was headless! I saw him!” To which the local Burgomaster can only nod his head and say, “Well, yes, that's why we call him the headless horseman.” Part Edward Scissorhands (particularly in the way he purses his lips) and part Don Knotts, Depp plays Crane as if he were the world's biggest schlemiel, a pale, hypocritical twig of a man far beyond his depth. As Katrina Van Tassel, Ricci has little to do but act imperiled and occasionally shriek; even she, though, is of sturdier stock than poor Crane. Walker's script makes quick work of Irving's stalwart bully-boy Brom Bones (here called Brom Van Brunt and played by Starship Troopers' Van Dien), who strides in and out of scenes like some wayward pugilist. Burton's film has problems from the start -- the editing and resultant pacing are off, for one thing, and you're never quite sure why all this is happening. The saving grace, of course, and the ultimate reason to see the picture, is Burton's phenomenal set design and period detail. If nothing else, Sleepy Hollow is a sumptuously gorgeous film, all wispy fog and creaking windmills, severed heads and bewitched trees. Henry James himself (were he a contemporary director and not a deceased Victorian gothicist) couldn't have done it better, nor could Hammer's Terence Fisher, I'll wager. Flawed at its core but stunning nonetheless, Burton's film is black and vermilion eye candy for spooky kids everywhere, a goth-tart for the masses.