By Henry Sheehan
Orange County Register
Nothing sleepy or hollow here
By Henry Sheehan
What a blast!
That's the best way to describe "Sleepy Hollow," Tim Burton's new live-action adaptation of Washington Irving's classic "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," penned in 1819. You should know going in, though, that this tale of the headless horseman who goes riding after nightfall in search of replacement noggins boasts the latest in head-chopping technology. There are none of those close-ups of a swinging blade and then a cut to some mannequin's head rolling discreetly off camera. No siree, Bob.
This time out, you get full shots of the headless rider galloping up behind some poor soul running away. Without the camera looking away for a moment, back goes his arm, down comes the blade, and off goes the head of the now stumbling victim. There's no blood to speak of, mind you. As one character fearfully points out, hellfire instantly cauterizes a wound. Nor, less understandably, is there a stump, either on the lifeless torso or the head rolling away from it. This latter bit no doubt has less to do with ghoulish realities than with Burton's desire to, er, spin out his giggly, gruesome effects to a point where they get a bit surreal.
In other words, this "Sleepy Hollow" has moments that Irving could only dream of. And after all, isn't that the whole point? Burton manages to reclaim the creepiness that ghost stories lost long ago thanks to our jaundiced, know-it-all age. Oddly, he manages the feat by being droll, by teasing out offbeat laughs with his favorite leading man, Johnny Depp.
It's hard to imagine the movie being as successful as it is without Depp, who, as Ichabod Crane, once more mitigates his pretty-boy good looks with generous heapings of dry eccentricity. He's a unique performer; some of his line deliveries are so halting that it's like he's about to forget what he's going to say. Yet somehow the strange pauses end up sounding more natural, spontaneous, emotional and funny than you could ever imagine them sounding any other way.
In Burton's version, which was written by Andrew Kevin Walker and Kevin Yagher, Ichabod Crane is not a schoolteacher in the lonely Hudson River Valley hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, but a constable with the New York City police circa 1799. Having made himself a nuisance to his superiors with his constant proselytizing for modern scientific methods, Crane finds himself dispatched to Sleepy Hollow to look into a series of murders featuring severed heads.
Thanks to the film's opening sequence (which features an unbilled and heavily made-up Martin Landau), we in the audience know for a fact that there's devilish doings about the old New York Dutch settlement. But the self-consciously rational Crane refuses to believe stories of a decapitated Hessian horseman (Christopher Walken), who storms out riding from his hidden grave at night to hunt for a replacement head. And Crane does have a point, since the town's leading citizen, Baltus Van Tassel (a very fine Michael Gambon), stands to add to his already formidable holdings thanks to the murders. Human and ghostly chicanery are afoot.
Burton's movies never lack for richness of theme, mood or design, but too often lack story. Not this time, though. The confluence of murder mystery and ghost story turns out to be a perfectly engrossing and puzzling till the end narrative.
This provides a sturdy foundation for all of Burton's usual preoccupations to blossom. Essentially, all his movies feature an obsessed young man here it's Crane whose conviction that he's found the answers to life mysteries (science in Crane's case) runs straight into an inexplicable reality. As in "Edward Scissorhands," Burton's other superb outing with Depp, the deeper truths of life come bound up in a young woman. Here it's Baltus' daughter, Katrina, a mysterious, alluring young woman with a belief in magic she's inherited from her dead mother.
Even the dead mother becomes an issue of bonding between the two. For after Crane suffers a rude attack from Katrina's swain, Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien), a head injury prompts long forgotten memories of his own mother (Lisa Marie), who was executed for witchcraft.
All this shadow and spookiness comes with ready wit. Crane, for example, is afraid of spiders and there's always at least one spider in a Burton movie. Then, too, the supporting cast is loaded with cagey, experienced actors, including a wonderful trio playing the town's most respectable folk: Jeffrey Jones as a minister, Richard Griffiths as a magistrate and Michael Gough as a notary. Miranda Richardson makes a signficant and welcome contribution as Baltus' second wife, Katrina's stepmother. Horror fans will be glad to note Christopher Lee in a small part at the film's beginning.
Sharing the limelight, as always with a Burton film, is the production design. This time out it was handled by Rick Henrichs, who does a marvelous job of blending the natural splendor of Hudson River scenery (actually somewhere in England) with a more phantasmagoric landscape. Houses tower and lean in on themselves, threatening to crumble back to lumber and dirt. Nature itself, meanwhile, seems like the habitation of some dark, lurking force, with the filigreed, grasping branches of forest trees tracing broken windowpanes against a lowering sky. Emmanuel Lubezki photographs it all with remarkable degrees of shadow.
In other words, if you can take the head-chopping, you should have a ball at "Sleepy Hollow," one of the year's movie highlights.