Film Commentary [3-14-00]
Action and Gloom - - Sleepy Hollow
Genre: Horror/historical
Grade = A-

Sleepy Hollow cover sheet
Tim Burton’s adaptation of Washington Irving’s classic tale changes a few things around. Set in 1799, Icabod Crane (Johnnie Depp) is no longer a school master, but a New York City constable who challenges the old order method of crime solving by torturing a confession out of a suspect with the fashionably new idea of using scientific deduction and reasoning. Meanwhile, Sleepy Hollow, a small Dutch town in the Hudson Valley, has had a spat of murders and requests assistance. This is the long suffering court judge’s(Christopher Lee) chance to get rid of the troublesome Crane for a while. The Judge decides to kill two birds with one stone and order’s Crane to Sleepy Hollow to ‘detect’ the murderer.

Upon arrival, Crane is greeted by Katrina van Tassel (Christina Ricci - The Opposite of Sex and The Adams Family) and immediately provokes the wrath of her suiter (Casper van Diem - Starship Troopers). Crane meets with the town officials only to be told that several people have had their heads lopped off by the Headless Horseman, which have yet to turn up. It seems the Horseman was originally a Hessian mercenary in the American Revolution who fought “not for love of money, but love of slaughter.” Tracked down by local revolutionaries, he is attacked, has his head cut off with his own sword and is buried in the nearby woods.

Crane, a educated man of the Age of Reason, scoffs at such nonsense and states that the killer is mortal man. He is soon to find out differently, and just how out of his depth he truly is.

Going in to this film at the dollar theater I really didn’t expect very much, and instead was much surprised. Tim Burton has directed some truly great films, such as Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands (both portrayed by Johnnie Depp), and some horrifyingly bad ones like Batman Returns and Mars Attacks. So with this mixed record, Burton has managed to produce another fine film that is very odd, very funny and at times absolutely horrific. Most significantly, Johnnie Depp, who has a habit of choosing very odd or interesting characters that are a challenge to portray, gives an absolutely astounding performance as the enthusiastic yet cowardly Icabod Crane suddenly confronted by situations involving death, the supernatural and his deepest fears. Unlike some notable ‘name’ actors (i.e. Kevin Costner who seems to give the same exact performance in every movie), each of Depp’s performances is unique to character he is portraying. If he keeps this up he’ll probably win an Oscar some day.

Christina Ricci’s performance was adequate but not particularly strong. Quite frankly, she looked anorexic and anemic. What was a surprise was the demonic performance of Miranda Richardson (The Crying Game, Empire of the Sun, Black Adder) as the evil stepmother, and Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman, who looks like he’s having a hell of a good time playing the sword swinging maniac (pre-headless days). Thank God he didn’t have any lines or Walkens voice would have ruined the entire effect. He’s very good at playing sophisticated or psychotic villains, and not particularly at outright horrifically evil ones. It was also good to see Christopher Lee again, who has just been brilliantly cast in the role of Saruman in the new trilogy production of The Lord of the Rings.

However, what is best about this film is its cinematography, set and costume design and visual effects. Burton has managed to produce a film with a visual atmosphere congenial to the haunting mood. Highly stylistic, with a brooding air. The visual effects engineered through computer technology has finally resulted in a realistic ‘headless’ horseman. No more of the stunt man with the fake looking towering shoulders to hide the head. He rides, he fights, he lops heads left and right, all the while looking like he really doesn’t have a head. This couldn’t have been done five years ago.

The only problem with the film is too many of the action scenes were just too dark to see what was going on. Tim Burton needed to be told that it is ok to have night scenes and light them enough to be visible to the audience. The fight scene with Depp and van Diem against the Horseman was action packed and very funny but I still have the sense that I missed a lot that was there to be seen.

This is a visual pleasing film that deserved its Oscar nominations for costume design, cinematography and art direction.

Once again, its good that Hollywood is finally producing some ‘real’ horror movies. For the last 22 years they’ve produced nothing but the worn out and tired formula ‘hack up the teenager by the unstoppable evil guy’ movie. This film is a welcome relief and with The Sixth Sense and A Stir of Echoes, is recommended.

Mainstreet USA circa 1799

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