By NEAL WATSON
Tim Burton and the Headless Horseman - a marriage made in movie heaven.
If you are familiar with the work of either party, you know they were meant to be together - and linking the two names was probably all the heads-up the studio needed before it gave the green light to Sleepy Hollow, out on video this week.
Burton is, of course, the inspired visual genius behind such incredibly atmospheric, gothic-influenced films like Batman, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. The Headless Horseman, for those who may not remember their early school days, was the villain of Washington Irving's famous story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Paying scant attention to The Legend - which was not a bad decision and shouldn't offend any Irving purists if there are any out there - Burton's Sleepy Hollow is a delight; beautiful to look at with dark, foreboding clouds sitting low on lovely rolling hills and eerie waves of fog skimming over headstones in a graveyard.
More than nightmarish mood and ambience, however, Sleepy Hollow whisks us away to this fairy tale land and has a sly sense of humour and an ability to be genuinely scary. (A word of warning if you are tempted to let pre-teens watch, Burton has made a dark fairy tale for grown ups. There are lots of gruesome beheadings and, while the violence is not gratuitous, it is intense.)
Set a few months before the new millennium - 1800 - we meet the legendary Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) as he faces the court, trying to convince the judge of the value of modern detective and forensic techniques - his. (Burton and screenwriter Kevin Andrew Walker - Seven - have turned Crane into a budding forensic detective instead of the teacher he was in Irving's story.)
Crane's impertinence before the court earns him an unpleasant assignment. Three people have been killed in a fortnight - their heads lopped off - in the sleepy little village of Sleepy Hollow, says the grave judge, played by Christopher Lee - one of several well-cast cameos.
Crane arrives in Sleepy Hollow and meets with the town elders, played by a who's who of great British character actors who craggy visages are instantly familiar but whose names are not. The elders inform Crane that not only were the victims decapitated by this wicked Headless Horseman but that the heads were gone.
"The heads were taken?" a suddenly white-as-a-sheet Crane weakly asks.
"Taken back to hell," spits one of the elders.
It is a simple, ages-old story and most of us are familiar with the Disney cartoon, but the wonder of this Sleepy Hollow is in the telling and in Burton's vision. This Horseman, played by Christopher Walken, is a sight to behold, his approach ominously foretold by the sound of the hooves on the path and the scalpel-like sword's release from its scabbard.
Wisely re-inventing Crane as an "amateur deducter," Burton is aided immeasurably by Depp, whose take on the character as an officious, rather squeamish, most reluctant hero gives the film its eccentric, offbeat edge - and many funny moments.
When he summons his courage, Crane becomes a formidable deductive force and he learns the dark secret closely guarded by the town elders. As he is drawn into the mystery, Crane, this rational man, fights the power of myth and superstition and the movie delivers its point about the tension between spirituality and modern science.
Unfortunately, Sleepy Hollow bogs down and runs out of steam long before the Headless Horseman's final ride and strands Christina Ricci in the role of the young woman who steals Crane's heart.
Those who don't like Burton will say again that the director's storytelling skills are overshadowed by his talent for art direction. In this case, it is a quibble in a movie that is a cut above what a simple re-telling of the Headless Horseman should be.
sleepy hollow - original rating: 4 SUNS (out of 5); video rating: 4 SUNS
Sleepy Hollow, a $100-million US triumph for Burton and Depp, marked the third collaboration between the director and the talented actor. In an interview with The Sun prior to the release of Sleepy Hollow, Depp said that he was on a similar wavelength with Burton in terms of story interest and approach and that the two shared a shorthand that made working together very comfortable. Here are their other films together:
Edward Scissorhands (1990): A hugely imaginative re-working of Frankenstein with Depp as a young man created by an odd scientist who dies leaving him with scissors for hands. The boy is rescued from his solitude by an Avon lady who takes him home to suburbia. Visually spectacular film has something to say about fitting in and featured a technically amazing, poignant performance from Depp.
Ed Wood (1994): A loving and hilarious treatment of the life of Ed Wood, the notoriously bad director of such cult dreck as Plan 9 From Outer Space. Wonderful performance as Wood by Depp, who gets great support from Bill Murray and Martin Landau, who won an Oscar for his stunning performance as Bela Lugosi.