Sleepy Hollow
Rating -

Horror (US); 1999; Rated R; 100 Minutes

Johnny Depp: Ichabod Crane
Christina Ricci: Katrina Van Tassel
Casper Van Dien: Brom Van Brunt
Miranda Richardson: Lady Van Tassel
Michael Gambon: Baltus Van Tassel
Marc Pickering: Young Masbeth
Christopher Walken: Headless Horseman (uncredited)
Michael Gough: Hardenbrook
Christopher Lee: Burgomaster
Jeffrey Jones: Steenwyck
Lisa Marie: Lady Crane
Richard Griffiths: Phillipse
Ian McDiarmid: Doc Lancaster
Steven Waddington: Killian

Produced by Francis Coppola, Larry J. Franco, Scott Rudin, Adam Schroeder and Kevin Yagher; Directed by Tim Burton; Screenwritten by Andrew Kevin Walker; inspired by the screen story by Kevin Yagher; based upon the story "The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving

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Written by DAVID KEYES

A feather pen scribbles down words in cursive on a blank sheet of paper. A name is signed. The paper is sealed and then put into a briefcase. The man holding the briefcase enters a carriage, and is taken across a desolate landscape shrouded in darkness, fringed in dead crops. The journey, also filled with echoing thunder claps, feels like part of a menacingly beautiful dream, in which the sights are exhilarating and yet textured by eerie shapes and shadows. No, the images do not belong to one of those great silent films--these images belong to the new adaptation of a classic story, "Sleepy Hollow." To say that it nourishes our sight is a drastic understatement; it throws visuals at us that are unique, eccentric and spellbinding all at once. They may very well be the most stirring images seen in a movie for the past 20 years.

Here is one of the greatest gothic horror films of our time, a movie of such marvelous visual power that it carries us into the atmosphere, and puts us on a journey much like the one displayed in the opening scenes. We are familiar with the path (the story is loosely adapted from a famous Washington Irving tale), but cannot begin to comprehend the elegance and beauty that is absorbed by our eyes along the way.

The screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker takes a large departure from the original story. Ichabod Crane, portrayed originally as a schoolteacher, is now a forensics lawyer from New York, who is being sent to a remote town called Sleepy Hollow after a judge grows tired of his scientific outbursts in court. When he arrives there, the high-class townsfolk invite him into the abode of Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), who terrifyingly warns his visitor of a legend in the town who has seemingly returned to murder the town's residents (at this point, five people have already been decapitated).

"I was told that the heads were found severed," Ichabod mutters.

"Their heads were not found at all," one man notes.

"They were taken by the Headless Horseman--taken back to hell," an old man further admits.

Annoyed at the prospect that the identity of the murder is this "headless horseman" ghost, Ichabod starts his search looking for human suspects ("this murderer is a man of flesh and blood, and I will discover him"). He scrapes together pieces of evidence from various sources--autopsies, new victims, and even an investigation at the burial site for this headless warrior. Early on in the movie, the characters specifically explain the origin of this ghost, in which this horseman, once having a head, went wild in his region and began decapitating bodies because, for some reason, it made him feel mighty. In one illustrious sequence, in which a frigid winter engulfs the landscape, this creature with glowing eyes and sharp teeth is scared off into the forest by a group of wild officials, who have come to punish him for his crimes (the horseman is, although not credited, played by Christopher Walken). Passing through a thicket, he encounters two twin girls, both of whom he warns not to make a sound; needless to say, they give away his location when one of them cracks a stick. Much later, it is revealed that one of these girls has grown up to be a hermit, residing in a cave in the deep woods, heavily involved in black magic and witchcraft (of sorts). The other girl, of course, is closely associated with the movie's most important characters; giving away her identity is unjustifiable.

The original story has been drastically altered to create a murder mystery-style plot, in which Mr. Crane is pitted against the infamous headless horseman not as an obstacle, but more as a detective. The alteration may seem odd and degrading to the Irving tale for some audiences members, but the details are so well-written and perceived that the movie gains relentless energy off of them. Matched up against the art direction, which breaks free from any limits of the Sleepy Hollow formula, this isn't a movie buried in clichés or routine predicaments. Even the ending, which is often disappointing with Hammer-style horror films, is well-executed; it does not feast on clichés, but rather, focuses on the intriguing cinematography, which is shot from ground level to best capture a chase scene between the horseman and Ichabod as they ride through the forlorn woods.

"Sleepy Hollow" is more than just a take on horror--it has moments of disaster, drama, and even comedy woven in--but every element explored fits together in one way or another. Especially effective is the pairing of Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, two actors who come from completely different cinematic backgrounds. While Ricci has spent most of her life in comedies, Depp has been found in mainly thrillers; as an effort to break from their traditional backgrounds, however, each is given a character of different personality. Ricci's Katrina Van Tassel generates a distant illumination in the mystery with her fascination of the supernatural, and Depp's Ichabod Crane is perfectly imagined as a blundering fool who faints at the sight of blood, and cowers under the sheets when dealing with out-of-this-world villains (this does, on occasion, produce a few laughs). The strongest point of their pairing, perhaps, is their compelling chemistry (in one scene, Ichabod claims "you have a bit of witch in you, Katrina, because you have bewitched me").

The movie was directed by Tim Burton, perhaps the most visually daring director in the entire film industry. His gothic charge is by no means a rare endeavor, as each of his movies have brilliantly visualized environments that feed on the suffering of humans, and the coldness of the atmosphere (his work on the first two "Batman" films is some of the most impressive). The stirring ability to breathe life into dark, dead landscapes challenges the audience in a way that nothing has before, and with each new project under his belt, we leap to its heals and willingly devour the imagery. "Sleepy Hollow" is the most versatile and stunning film Burton has done to date, and it joins "The Insider," "Eyes Wide Shut," and "The Matrix" as one of the years most breathtaking achievements.

© 1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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