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SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)
The Headless Horseman rides again -- in live action!
By Steve Biodrowski
November 22, 1999
Okay, let me begin by warning you that I'm going to be the spoilsport critic in the following review. This doesn't mean I disliked the film. Far from it: I was actually enthralled by Tim Burton's fairy tale horror aesthetic. One of the magical things of which cinema is capable is the ability to transport viewers to worlds they've never seen. These can be real worlds in distant lands or, as in this case, make believe worlds that exist nowhere but in the minds of the filmmakers-until they have been committed to celluloid, that is, whereupon they become part of our communal dreamscape, a sort of not-quite never-never land imbedded in our memories more vividly than any real place known only second-hand through books or photographs.
In that sense, SLEEPY HOLLOW must be counted a rousing success. Working with a top production team, Burton has coordinated the efforts of cinematographer, production designer, art director, wardrobe maker, and make up artist, in order to fashion a landscape for the town of Sleepy Hollow that is at once unreal and convincing. Cobbling together bits and pieces of inspiration from movies he loved as a child, the director has fused them together into his own distinctly recognizable vision. The moody atmosphere and the artificiality of the film's look suggest Roger Corman's Poe films, which strove to create a reality suggesting an inner landscape of the mind. The colorful action and outbursts of gory violence, softened by the good-versus-evil fairy tale trappings, are distinctly reminiscent of Hammer horror at its best. And the muted colors and production design suggest an attempt to recapture some feeling of the black-and-white Universal horror films from the '30s.
This is a film that wants to be spooky in a friendly, creepy way. Its intention is not shock or disgust, nor is it meant to be deeply disturbing. (One wonders whether this coincides with the original intention of screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker [SEVEN]. Walker has been conspicuously absent from the big promotional push for the film, apparently preferring to keep silent-his standard operating procedure when unhappy with the filmization of his material.) In short, if you're looking for a good, old-fashioned horror film, crafted with modern technology, then this is your cup of witch's brew.
Now we come to the troublesome part: the story. The film follows Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), an 18th century constable dedicated to replacing superstition with scientific methods in his criminal investigations. Sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders allegedly perpetrated by a Headless Horseman, Crane is a skeptic who insists he will uncover a human murderer, but of course the plot will force him to come to different conclusions. In effect, he starts out as Scully and turns into Mulder halfway through, and the plot comes across like a remake of Jacques Tourneur's far more sophisticated CURSE OF THE DEMON, in which Dana Andrews' psychiatrist underwent a similar psychological journey.
All this is well and good, but it creates one big problem: Crane is a detective, and in order to give him something to do, there must be something in the story for him to detect. The solution proposed by the script is that the Headless Horseman is acting under the control of a living human being who is trying to secure an inheritance by killing off all those who stand in the way, while there is a conspiracy of silence on the issue by several upstanding pillars of the community. This may be good enough for a mystery story, but it is woefully prosaic in the context of a fantasy-horror film. Rather like this years STIR OF ECHOES, the film's conclusion finds the supernatural elements pushed from center stage, while the mystery story plays itself out in one of those scenes where the villain explains in laborious detail everything that's happened in the film so far. Unlike STIR OF ECHOES, fortunately, SLEEPY HOLLOW redeems itself when the Horseman rides back into the story for a rousing climax, including a genuinely creepy, blood-stained kiss between the dead rider and the mortal who formerly controlled him.
Here's the problem: the supernatural is most effective when it is irrational, when it comes at us like a nightmare that makes sense only in terms of dream-logic. Reducing the Horseman to the instrument of human greed robs him of some of his power. At least in CURSE OF THE DEMON, it was clear that Carswell was never fully in control of the demon: he could 'cast the runes' in order to target some victim, but once the demon was unleashed, it was beyond the wizard's power to recall it; in effect, he had little more control than an arsonist who sets a fire but has no way of determining which way the winds will blow. In SLEEPY HOLLOW, on the other hand, the Headless Horseman is ultimately a just a puppet on a chain.
Also, the film is hardly helped by its cynical attitude toward Christianity. In the context of a realistic movie, showing the hypocrisy that underlies a devout exterior, could make for effective storytelling. But in SLEEPY HOLLOW, this approach violates the attempt to render a cinematic fairy tale. Fairy tales, after all, rely on clear distinctions between Good and Evil. Start blurring those, and you lose the purity. It can be done, but you had better have something else to replace what has been lost: like dramatic complexity (which, sadly, isn't the case here). Oh well, at least the villain in the end turns out to be a Wicked Stepmother (although her way with an ax, decapitating at least two victims on her own, leaves us wondering why she ever needed to employ the Headless Horseman to do her dirty work).
This last element almost seems a dim echo of an earlier draft, as if at one time it was intended to reveal the Horseman as a red herring. Fortunately, the film does not take this course, maintaining a supernatural explanation (unlike the source material). Even this creates problems, however, as the key scene taken from Washington Irving's is just that: a fake-out, with romantic rival Brom (Casper Van Dien) dressed up like the Horseman in order to scare Ichabod away from Katrina Van Tassle (Christina Ricci). In the context of the film, the scene is a throwaway that never affects the plot; it's there simply because we are expect it, from having read the short story of seen the Disney animated film.
What should have been done to solve all these problems is simple: The mystery story should have been solved halfway through the film, allowing the supernatural element free reign to take over the climax. Ichabod Crane should have spent the first half of the story unraveling the human conspiracy. He should have misinterpreted Brom's Horseman ruse as a red herring to distract him from finding the real killer, and only later realized that it was irrelevant to the murders, that Brom had his own agenda (scaring Crane out of town). He should have unmasked Brom as the false horseman, pointed the accusing finger at the conspirators, and triumphantly claimed the mystery to be solved. And then-only then-should the real Horseman have appeared, rending his tower of logic and reasoning into a tattered shambles. This would have given true dramatic resonance to scenes that are now just necessary exposition. It would have gotten the mundane part of the story out of the way in order to let the really glorious stuff emerge unfettered. And it would have given the Crane character some direction in which to grow. What's in the story now works as a vehicle for Burton and Depp to play make-believe-and very effectively they do it-but the film could have been much, much more.
Having raked the weaknesses over the coals, it is only fair to catalogue some more of the film's strengths. Burton uses the folktale story as license to indulge in some amusing theatrics. Because the story is inherently unbelievable, and the horror trappings are so familiar, the film is not burdened with trying to maintain verisimilitude. Instead, everything-the look, the performances, the music (by Danny Elfman)-are gloriously over the top. The expected cliches are not avoided on tip-toe; they are enthusiastically embraced. When Crane is expounding on his criminological theories, a la Sherlock Holmes, he gives an eye-popping, melodramatic reading to the lines that clues us in to enjoy the film as a delightful romp. Burton aids in the endeavor with clever camera angles that allow Depp to barge in and out of the frame as he makes his points, thus adding far more dramatic emphasis than necessary-and far more than any conventional film could tolerate. But in the filmic world of SLEEPY HOLLOW, it all makes sense-a sort of winking acknowledgment to the audience.
Genre stalwarts Michael Gough and Christopher Lee lend strong support in small roles; Martin Landau pops up in an even briefer, unbilled cameo as an early victim. Christina Ricci is enchanting as Katrina, although the script never quite sells her as a combination of love interest and potential suspect, and the result is that Crane looks a bit of a dullard for not being able to make his mind up about her. And Christopher Walken does an effective turn as the Hessian Horseman, seen in flashback before losing his head. In a way, he is almost too effective, making it hard for the Headless Horseman to measure up. Only Miranda Richardson falls short. Given the burden of too much exposition, she says it all very nicely, but she fails to bring it to life in a thrilling way, and we resent the screen time wasted trying to connect the dots when we paid to be terrified by a rampaging force from beyond the grave for heaven's sake!
It feels somehow rude to apply logic to a film that openly encourages a sense of wonder-a dark and scary sense of wonder, true, but a sense of wonder nonetheless. However, the film sets itself up for this criticism by fusing its effective fairy tale horrors with an adequate but uninspired mystery plot. Consider this element a blemish-a forgivable flaw in an otherwise dazzling gem. Open your eyes to what the film has to show, and you will be amazed and thrilled by turns. And if the plot twists and turns in ways that are not always to its own best advantage, rest assured that it will ultimately find the right path at the end. And, hopefully, someone will consider Depp's Ichabod Crane worthy of becoming a series character. With this as an introduction, imagine that adventures that could ensue....