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San Francisco Chronicle

Friday, May 26, 2000

Burton's `Sleepy' Is Hollow at Its Core
`Horror' film devoid of scary moments

Mick LaSalle

SLEEPY HOLLOW: Horror. Starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci. Directed by Tim Burton. (R. 104 minutes.)


In ``Sleepy Hollow,'' director Tim Burton gets to play with the most expensive Creepy Crawlers set in the world. Rubber heads roll, fake blood sprays and animatronic animals squeal as they're cut in two.

If that sounds good, think again. Imagine an irritating adolescent who fancies himself ghoulish. ``Sleepy Hollow'' has an aesthetic that seems based on album covers. It doesn't feel like the work of an artist in any way.

The picture intensifies a dispiriting trend in movies. It has no theatrical core and no integrity in the writing, acting or storytelling. The jokes aren't funny. The tone is uncertain. It invokes nothing real or fantastic. It assaults the audience with a soundtrack that insists we're experiencing something we're not.

``Sleepy Hollow'' calls into question Burton's reputation as a serious talent. What does it take to make a horror movie without a single scary moment? All ``Sleepy Hollow'' has going for it is art direction, and even in that it falls back on cliche. The film, based on Washington Irving's ``The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,'' stars Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane, a New York City constable who goes to the farming town of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders. The year is 1799, and a headless horseman is going around cutting off heads and stealing them.

As Crane, Depp's performance is irrelevant. He has nothing to work with. Burton's direction is nonexistent, and Andrew Kevin Walker's script is without a moment of tension or truth. So Depp comes up with stuff. He winces, blinks, sniffs, purses his lips and acts fussy.

He fares better than Christina Ricci, who is completely out of her depth. She plays Katrina, the daugh ter of Van Tassel, the wealthiest man in town. Ricci has always been an interesting actress, but she has no business in a period film. The scenes between Depp and Ricci are excruciatingly flat and call to mind Ed Wood's films.

At least Wood tried. Burton, working with more money than Wood ever dreamed of, is bankrupt of inspiration. The film does have the special-effects whoosh of a headless horseman galloping out from the bowels of hell through a hole in a tree, and the momentary kick of seeing Christopher Walken growling like a maniac as the horseman in his earthly incarnation.

That amounts to two minutes, tops. After that, all ``Sleepy Hollow'' has is a smart attitude, as if it's sending up the sort of genuinely frightening horror film its director is incapable of creating. Plus, it has heads. Lots of bouncing heads.


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