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SLEEPY HOLLOW, 1999
Movie Review

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SLEEPY HOLLOW MOVIE POSTER
SLEEPY HOLLOW, 1999
Movie Reviews

Directed by Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson
Review by Jane Hopkins



SYNOPSIS:

Ichabod Crane is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the decapitations of 3 people with the culprit being the legendary apparition, the Headless Horseman.

OSCAR winner for Best Art Direction

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REVIEW:

New York, 1799: Free-thinking young constable Ichabod Crane runs afoul of his superiors with his newfangled ideas of using “science” and “reason” to solve crimes. Anxious to get Ichabod out of their hair, they ship him off to “Sleepy Hollow,” a small Dutch town upstate that has recently lost three citizens to a head-chopping maniac. The constable intends to use his innovative techniques to find the culprit, but it won’t be easy. The townspeople are suspicious of Ichabod, and are convinced that the murderer is not a man, but a ghostly creature known as The Headless Horseman. Add to that a beguiling young witch and traumatic recurring nightmares, and poor Ichabod Crane is going to have a devil of a time finding the truth…

Those familiar with Washington Irving’s original story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (or with the classic 1949 Disney short) will notice some differences right off the bat. One of the most notable changes is our hero, who in the story is a gangly, stork-like schoolteacher. In Burton’s film he is a detective, and as for being gangly and stork-like, suffice it to say this particular Ichabod Crane is played by Johnny Depp. Also, whereas Irving’s original hero was a deeply superstitious man, Constable Crane will only believe what he sees with his own eyes. Of course, when sufficient evidence eventually rears its ugly (lack of a) head, Ichabod is ready to accept it. These changes to the character work perfectly, particularly due to Depp’s performance, but more on that later.

There are other significant differences between Irving’s story and Burton’s film, most notably regarding the Horseman’s motivation. In the short story, the Horseman decapitates his victims in search of a replacement for his own missing head. Burton’s film gives a less ghostly reason for this flurry of head-chopping. To be sure, the Horseman is still demonic, but he is driven by the rage of a living master. This reason is still good for some chills, since it reminds us of the depths to which vengeance can take us.

“Sleepy Hollow” has a very strong cast, but if any actor is this film’s biggest asset, it’s Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane. Apart from the fact that the camera loves him, Depp’s take on Ichabod is complex and endearing. In his quest for the truth, the constable must examine the headless corpses of the victims. The catch is, Ichabod is very squeamish, so every autopsy and exhumation tests his resolve to the limit. Yet this never threatens Ichabod’s credibility as a hero. On the contrary, it makes it even easier to cheer him on; we want to see him conquer his fears and solve the case. Depp portrays a man whose childhood traumas have left him skittish, but have also made him unshakable in the pursuit of justice. After so many films idolizing fearless tough guys, it’s so much more interesting to have a hero who defeats the powers of darkness, only collapse in a dead faint at the end of it all. Depp plays Ichabod Crane brilliantly, and it is arguably one of the strongest performances of his career.

The rest of the cast are well-suited to their roles. As Katrina Van Tassel, Christina Ricci might look a bit too young, but she has an ethereal quality and a somewhat anachronistic forthrightness that makes her more than just a cardboard love interest. Michael Gambon, playing Katrina’s father, conveys a sense of decency while still leaving us unsure about his character’s true nature. Lady Van Tassel, as played by Miranda Richardson, is a mysterious woman who seems to enjoy toying with our hero. Casper Van Dien takes on the role of Brom Van Brunt, a.k.a. Brom Bones, but thankfully gets more to do than just be a spiteful rival. He definitely seems like a nasty bully to begin with, but when he and Ichabod both take on the Horseman together, Brom exhibits real bravery. The scene is brief, but the cooperation between the “jock” and the “nerd” makes Brom far more likeable than he could’ve been.

Special mention should also go to Marc Pickering as Young Masbath, an adolescent who loses his father to the Horseman early in the film, only to avenge the murder by helping Ichabod track down the real killer. Kids have become a cliché in horror films, with their habit of whispering premonitions and reciting nursery rhymes in a singsong fashion, but Young Masbath is different. He faces danger with stoicism, and does his part to save the day. With his understated acting style and quiet resolve, Pickering makes Young Masbath a welcome addition to the story.

Finally, be on the lookout for some fun cameos from Christopher Lee as a judge and Christopher Walken as the Horseman himself. As for awesome actors not named Christopher, get ready for Ray “Darth Maul” Park performing stunts as the headless version of the horseman. It’s remarkable that Park can convey so much personality without a head, let alone a visible face, but he pulls it off wonderfully.

This movie has Tim Burton’s style all over it, and that doesn’t stop at the dark sets, haunting Danny Elfman score, and quirky wardrobe (courtesy, as usual, of the very creative Colleen Atwood). “Sleepy Hollow” is a surprisingly gruesome subject for Burton, whose films are usually more bizarre than horrifying. Consequently, the bloodshed here is highly stylized, with no attempt to make it look like anything more than thick red paint. Yet the fake blood looks striking here, due to the washed-out blue tint of the film. Burton also makes sure the gore is not too realistic. There’s actually an explanation for why every decapitation is relatively clean: the Horseman’s sword, heated with the fires of hell itself, cauterizes his victim’s flesh. At the other end of the scale, there is one chilling scene with an iron maiden during which blood flows in torrents. These extremes keep the film firmly in the realm of fantasy, which prevents the tone from getting too grim. That helps, because in “Sleepy Hollow,” nobody is safe. Also, the special effects team does a fantastic job with the corpses and disembodied heads in this film, the major showcase for their talents being the grotesque Tree of the Dead.

Overall, “Sleepy Hollow” is one of Tim Burton’s most satisfying projects. It carries the director’s macabre style, but is also accessible to those who normally don’t go for his strangeness. Aided by screenwriters Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker, Burton doesn’t lose sight of the story in the pursuit of interesting visuals. For someone viewing this film for the first time, the mystery is enjoyably tricky. After discovering the ending, it’s also fun to go back and look at the film knowing the villain’s identity. The characters, particularly Ichabod Crane, also make it worth watching again and again. Most of all, it should please fans of film and ghost stories alike. So by all means pay a visit to Sleepy Hollow, but heed the warning and “watch your head.”

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