The Feckless Horseman

The creators behind Sleepy Hollow have lopped off the story's charm, but still offer up a cool-looking movie.

Sleepy Hollow.
"The spectre is known at all the country firesides by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow," writes Washington Irving in his original fantasy. Thanks in large part to the silly, watered-down fun of the animated Disney version, the Horseman and his victim, the gangling and gallant Ichabod Crane, have firmly lodged themselves in popular consciousness. Even those possessing only a passing familiarity with the story can clearly picture the "affrighted pedagogue" fleeing the "Galloping Hessian."

Sleepy Hollow, the latest (and largest) adaptation of the classic tale, latches onto Irving's basic characters and elements, but then proceeds to rewrite the whole scheme, producing a wild and loose variation that is light on suspense but heavy on surprises. Comparisons simply do not hold, for despite its rich attention to period detail and dreamy hues, this story is kin to the original chiefly in its aesthetic. Gone is the tottering schoolmaster from Connecticut, his lonesome rides, his mysterious vanishing. Irving's story is gutted and cannibalized to produce an expanded narrative: a cousin perhaps in tone, a stranger in terms of plot.

It is 1799, and this Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is an edgy New York City cop . . . er . . . constable: a sharp-witted sleuth blessed (or cursed) with an affinity for obtuse scientific practices, especially in the field of pathology. When three corpses are discovered -- headless -- in the Hudson Valley borough of Sleepy Hollow, Crane is sent by the stern Burgomaster (Christopher Lee) to investigate. After dispatching his pet cardinal from the window of his laboratory/apartment, Crane soon enough finds himself in the tiny Dutch village, where his appearance prompts the paranoid shutting of leaded glass windows (yes, Depp once again plays the cuddly outsider).

As soon as the forlorn elegance of the town is established, Crane makes the acquaintance of fey and lovely Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), whose father, Baltus (Michael Gambon), and mother, the Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson), are counted among Sleepy Hollow's more elite denizens. Their wealth cannot save them, however, from the murderous Headless Horseman (with head, in flashback, Christopher Walken), a ghostly mercenary with a thing for decapitation. A quorum of patriarchs, including Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones), Magistrate Philipse (Richard Griffiths), Doctor Lancaster (Ian McDiarmid), and Notary Hardenbrook (Michael Gough), relate the demon's tale to the overconfident Crane, who sets out immediately to crack the case.

Death continues to visit the town, with the Horseman's arrival heralded by impressive blasts of lightning through the mist. Unsupported and even shunned by the people he's striving to save, Crane performs messy autopsies and messier interviews, convinced that the culprit is a flesh-and-blood man -- until he encounters the ghoul head-on. Thereafter, he swiftly deduces that the evil spirit is intimately linked to a mystery among the villagers. Teamed with Katrina and the orphaned Young Masbath (Marc Pickering), and plagued by dreams of his own doomed mother, Crane makes the dissolution of this evil his spiritual quest.

Sleepy Hollow's strength is in its look, which is jaw-droppingly beautiful -- a personal best for director Tim Burton, aided by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The movie's style, with its icy glow and masterful use of shadow and fog, is comparable to Burton's Edward Scissorhands or Batman. But unlike those outings, Sleepy Hollow dodges suburban kitsch and cold modernism to deliver lush, organic tableaux. (Shooting this quintessentially American tale in England may have upped the inspiration.) Consider how fantastic the themed rides at Disneyland are to children. With his winding lanes and windmills enshrouded in mist, Burton and his production designers have labored to create that sensation for adults. It wouldn't be too far off the mark to call their vision spectacular.

Sadly, these incredible efforts are bound in service to a mediocre script. While it's fair game to snatch up a classic and revise it (executive producer Francis Ford Coppola -- who seems to know a thing or two about filmmaking -- has tried his hand at this before, in varying capacities, including Dracula, Frankenstein, and Moby Dick), Andrew Kevin Walker's take on Sleepy Hollow excises the story's hypnotic allure and slow build, instead focusing primarily on hard, fast action. In his hands, the Horseman becomes less an enigmatic horror than an antiquated version of Friday the 13th's Jason, or even a less talkative Darth Maul. (For the record, Ray Park, who played Maul, is credited as one of two Headless Horseman stunt players.)

Unlike Steven Spielberg's Hook, which also sought to revise a classic fantasy but dissolved into an incomprehensibly awful mess, Sleepy Hollow stays tight and true to its own ends. But another problem with Walker's script is the bloody heart it wears so heavily on its sleeve. Part of the sly subtext of Irving's tale is the clashing of darkly mystical and staunchly Christian elements in the somnolent town. Walker (Seven, 8mm) has chosen to amp this conflict to a ludicrous degree, until it becomes an inquisition of evil Bible-thumpers against poofy pagans, the latter only wishing to scribble silly glyphs in the dirt in peace. ("Villainy wears many masks," Crane exhorts, "none so dangerous as the mask of virtue!") While this undercurrent would be intriguing if both sides were better developed, being bludgeoned with it on this level is tiresome.

Speaking of bludgeoning, it seems that on-again/off-again Burton collaborator Danny Elfman has suffered a partial hearing loss. Either that, or he wasn't given adequate time to summon up a suitable score, because the music in Sleepy Hollow, while composed of pleasingly familiar elements, vacillates between bombast and clutter, offering not a single memorable theme. The movie also feels rushed and impatient in its cutting, which further detracts.

Depp is charismatic and winning in the lead role, but he's no more Ichabod Crane than Jack Nicholson was the Joker. He's obviously aware that his physicality is entirely wrong for the part, so he compensates with slightly gawky delivery. Like Keanu and Wynona in Dracula, he and Ricci seem pitted against their eloquent dialogue, which comes off stilted and cute, as in a high school play. ("Perhaps there is a bit of witch in you, Katrina."/"Why do you say that?"/"Because you bewitched me!")

This nattering on is cushioned, thankfully, by the presence of veterans like Gambon, Richardson, and Griffiths (whom it's a delight to see again after his turn as sweet and lecherous Uncle Monty in Withnail & I). As the headed Horseman, Walken narrowly escapes looking like a complete idiot, growling and thrashing like some bastard child of Sid Vicious (hair) and Dee Snyder (fangs). (Ah, the directorial power of Perfect! Gimme more of that!)

Sleepy Hollow is punctuated by entrancing elements (Ichabod's dreams, a young boy's magic lantern, the motif of the cardinal, a diabolical tree straight out of Edward Gorey), but these delights are too often buried by a barrage of noise following seconds thereafter. This hasty pacing makes for a rich and exciting movie, but not an especially spooky or spellbinding one. If only the writer had reflected upon Irving's description of "a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land."

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