AboutFilm.Com - Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow

USA, 1999. Rated R. 105 minutes.

Cast: Johnny Deep, Cristina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Christopher Lee, Martin Landau (uncredited)
Writers: Andrew Kevin Walker (screenplay and story) and Kevin Yagher (story), based loosely on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving
Music: Danny Elfman (score)
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
Producers: Scott Rudin & Adam Schroeder
Director: Tim Burton

Grade: B+ Review by Dana Knowles

: This film is rated R for very good reason. It contains multiple instances of graphic violence and bloodletting. It is not suitable for small children! I am placing this note at the top of my review because I feel that parents should take its rating very seriously, particularly with regard to children under twelve years old.

This is precisely the sort of film that I am--as a highfalutin' intellectual-wannabe--supposed to abhor. The characters are thinly drawn. The story is utterly lightweight and somewhat predictable. Its use of the original source material is so scant as to boil down to appropriation of names and locale. It has nothing of note to say. It exists purely in the realm of dreamy stimulation, opting to forego thematic weight in favor of astonishingly evocative visuals and thrill-ride pleasures. It's a popcorn movie. And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed every second of its presence on the screen. What to do?! Am I slipping? Perhaps. But I still have to call it as I see it. I thought it was a terrific ride, despite its remarkable hollowness as a narrative.

Tim Burton is a perplexing presence in the filmmaking world. Few can match his extraordinary knack for visual invention, but his films freqently fall short of their potential for greatness because he rarely manages to forge a compelling narrative thread out of the footage he's shot. Sleepy Hollow is not terribly different in this respect, except that by overtly reaching for less, Burton accomplishes more. It's the simplicity of his intent that makes the film work despite its lack of resonance. Christina RicciBurton establishes and maintains a quirkily lighthearted tone, while melding the dreamlike world of classic fairy tales to a modern horror film sensibility. Burton's injection of silly humor and his twisted gleefulness regarding the graphic violence that's shown result in a bizarre sort of uniqueness: otherwise disgusting displays of gore and mutilation seem as beautiful as they are fun.

It's an odd exercise, to be sure. It's certainly questionable in some lofty moral realm. But I fell for it anyway, and came away with a measure of genuine admiration for its deliberate emptiness. Substance or gravity would have dragged this film into the realm of disgusting vulgarity. By being what it is, it allows for a purer sort of aesthetic enjoyment, making Burton's decision to cut loose and show us what we dare not wish to see play as a child's imagination running wild. It's astonishing to realize how delightful this wallow in inherently repulsive images becomes as the film unwinds. I would have felt shame if I could have wiped the smile off of my face.
The Big Picture

The anchor at the center of Burton's flight of fancy is the wonderful Johnny Depp. His Ichabod Crane bears no resemblance to the character in the classic tale. He's not a walking caricature of lanky extremities, nor is he a local schoolteacher. This adaptation casts Crane as a New York City constable sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of beheadings. Resolute in his belief that science and knowledge are the keys to unraveling life's mysteries, Crane arrives in this backwoods town with a bag of instruments and determined mind. He will solve these murders, and he'll use that success to prove the worthiness of his faith in methodical inquiry. There's just one little problem... Ichabod Crane is woefully weak in the knees. He's a scaredy-cat of immense proportions, and ill-equipped to venture into the dark recesses of this rustic nightmare, regardless of whether the events turn out to be a supernatural phenomenon or a scientifically explainable series of killings. Depp plays Crane with a delightful mixture of feigned bravado, gee-whiz forthrightness, and queasy fear. He's utterly charming as the dapper and eloquent wimp, effectively filling in the narrative and thematic blanks with his remarkable screen presence. If ever a film benefitted from star power, Sleepy Hollow is it.

Christina Ricci is an excellent match for Depp, investing Katrina Van Tassel with a wry assertiveness that blends nicely with her evocative sensuality, making this somewhat slight role of "love interest" seem weightier than it likely was on the page. The supporting cast is full of terrific actors, all of whom seem to be in on Burton's lighthearted vision. Michael Gambon (whom Hollywood seems finally to have discovered) brings considerable charm to his role as Baltus Van Tassel, though there's not much character there to play. Miranda Richardson lends an air of arch hamminess to her portrayal of his wife. Christopher Walken is a memorable vision of menace as the Headless Horseman (when he still had his head, that is), looking a bit like a demonic Edward Scissorhands. Christopher Lee, Jeffrey Jones, Ian McDiarmid, and Lisa Marie contribute small, but enjoyable, moments to the whole. The lone misfire is Casper Van Dien, who is given as little to do as the rest of the cast, but brings nothing more to Crane's romantic rival, Brom Van Brundt, than a pretty face. In the original story, this character is known by his nickname: Brom Bones. I couldn't help wishing that Burton had mustered the guts to have the villagers refer to him as Brom Cheek-Bones, but I suppose that may have merely been my dark side bubbling up to the surface.Sleepy Hollow cemetery

The look of this film is pure magic. The production design (Rick Heinrichs) drops us into a credible version of these historical locales (both the titular rural village and a fantastic recreation of late-18th century New York City), but steeps them in such fully-realized atmosphere that they seem equal parts real and otherworldly. The cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki, with additional work by Conrad Hall in the NYC sequences) is achingly beautiful eye-candy of the highest order. The visual effects are amazing in both inventiveness and execution (pardon the pun!), forcing the otherwise squeamish--among whom I can be counted--to keep both eyes open at all times, just to marvel at how seamlessly they're done. The atmosphere is sufficiently eerie to keep the action exciting and suspenseful, but also conveys a joviality that--should you prove open to it--allows the audience to share the sense of childish fun that Burton clearly had in concocting this world.

It's rare that the look and mood (or the star) of a film will captivate me so thoroughly that I'm willing to suspend my desire for deeper meaning, but Sleepy Hollow pulled it off. I wanted to feel cheated by its wafer-thin premise and lack of intellectual ambition, but was instead transported to its world and entranced by its vision. When all was said and done, I learned nothing. My emotions were never deeply engaged. I found no particular delight in the story on its own terms. And yet, I haven't enjoyed mindless entertainment this much in a very long time. How can I feign disappointment or derision, even if I think I should? To be perfectly honest, I'm looking for an excuse to sit through it again. And as soon as my self-esteem can manage it, I will.

Review © November 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author
Images © 1999 by Paramount Pictures and Mandalay Pictures LLC. All Rights Reserved.