SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999) ***1/2
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, and Christopher Walken Director: Tim Burton Running Time: 102 minutes Rated R (for graphic horror violence and gore, and brief sexuality)
By Blake French:
Tim Burton is just about as good as they get in the movie business when it comes to creating an atmospheric world to inhabit specific characters. "Sleepy Hollow" is the perfect kind of movie for his directional Midas touch; it resembles the best of Burton in every way. In the film, an adaptation based on a story by Washington Irving called The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, he captures the slumbering, creepy village of Sleepy Hollow with vivid details and imaginative description. The way everything is presented, the trees look like something out of a fairy tale and the scenery represents deception in a mysterious wonderland, is what makes this production one of the years most captivating and magical film experiences.
Some of the visual credit should also be given to the film's Cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, and the credited production designer, Rick Heinrichs. These elements contribute a great deal of success to Burton's masterpiece. Both the design and Cinematography are some of the best seen all year, and deserve a hard earned Oscar Nomination. They make the film intriguing and visually stimulating.
The film takes place in the late 1700's, in New York. Constable Ichabod Crane, a timid and but smart man played by Johnny Depp, is assigned to investigate a series of grizzly murders in a nearby town called Sleepy Hollow. He's rather concerned about his latest task, however, due to the content of the killings. The victim's heads have been sliced, in one clean sweep, straight from their bodies. He accepts his duties, and travels by horse and carriage to the isolated village.
Once Ichabod arrives, the locals, including Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson), Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien), and Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones), greet him with eagerness. They explain the legend of the headless horseman, who is supposedly causing the murders in their town. At first he is skeptical. Then, after witnessing a victim losing their head personally, he arrives at the conclusion that a headless horseman is responsible for the tragic catastrophes accruing. Ichabod soon meets Katrina Van Tassel, an innocent looking, self spoken young woman who may have some advice, as well as several secrets of her own.
The Headless horseman is a perfect portrayed villain for "Sleepy Hollow." He is brute, oversized, and roughly textured with outwear. The actor who brings him to life when his head is on is perfect for the role; Christopher Walken. For some odd reason, however, popular film critic Roger Ebert reluctantly refused to tell his readers the name of the actor, thinking it would give something away. Well, I am sorry, Mr. Ebert, but it isn't that hard to find this information elsewhere. The filmmakers are not trying to hold Walken as a secret. Stating he stars as the headed horseman gives nothing away. One must see his performance and make up for themselves to even imagine what material the film's bad guy brings forth.
Tim Burton's direction is focused and wonderfully observant here. The murder sequences are gory and violent, but never way over the top. Burton never losses sight of his main characters, has a good idea about what he wants to place in film, and the special effects do not distract his ability to do so. He has a knack for allowing an audience to become involved with his pictures. We must think for ourselves, figuring out nuggets of the plot on our own, without the projectors help. He has demonstrated these techniques before in such films as "Edward Scissorhands," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," and even the best Batman film yet, "Batman Returns."
Johnny Depp offers an Oscar worthy performance as Ichabod Crane. He brings the squeamish role to life effortlessly with striking details and perfect form. He is flawlessly cast, as well as Christina Ricci, who also acts with style and poignancy. Compliments also go out to splendid costuming the actors are permitted to wear.
Although "Sleepy Hollow" offers lots of creepy impressions, the film is far from being very scary. Some moments do generate some minor thrills, but for the most part, the production is not as terrifying as it could have been. Much of it lacks momentum and build-up for the dozen or so graphic beheadings that take place. Burton could have easily loaded his picture with bombarding amounts of shock value, suspense, and tension filled fright, but instead goes for all out violence, plot, and mystery. Not that this effects the overall production. This is more of an atmospheric movie than a scream feast. The atmosphere is certainly above the average.
The conclusion of "Sleepy Hollow" works in a bizarre, but unpredictable fashion. The climax occurs unexpectedly and excitingly, with much surprise and special effects. The film's foreshadowing is effective, but regardless of how experienced of a filmgoer you are, this is one ending that is not meant to be figured out before it takes place. It is one of the preferred closings I've seen in a while. Despite a few personal objections, "Sleepy Hollow" is a brilliantly crafted work of art--one of the years better films.
Brought to you by Paramount Pictures.