Watching Sleepy Hollow, you realize that Tim Burton could have
made a definitive masterwork about the Headless Horseman...if anyone had given him a script that was actually about the Headless Horseman. Changing source material -- even radically changing source material -- is nothing new in Hollywood, so it's not terribly surprising to find only a passing resemblance between the film and Washington Irving's classic ghost story. It is both surprising and inevitably disappointing to discover that the classic ghost story has been turned into a whodunnit. There is plenty of splendid, grisly entertainment in Burton's brand of quirky gothic horror,
but it's bogged down in a story that's a cross between a parlor mystery and an episode of "Scooby Doo."
The story's protagonist is still named Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), but in Sleepy Hollow Crane is a turn-of-the-19th-century New York City constable dedicated to logical investigation and his own early explorations into forensic science. After a clash with a local judge, he's sent off to the remote upstate hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, where three people have already been found decapitated. The town fathers, including wealthy citizen Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), believe the murders to be the work of a legendary Headless Horseman who haunts the area, but the skeptical Crane is unconvinced. It is only after his own encounter with the spectral figure that Crane changes the focus of his investigation from "who" to "why."
From its very first moments, Sleepy Hollow shows tremendous
promise. The deaths of two of the Horseman's victims -- including Martin Landau in a cameo as a Sleepy Hollow landowner -- lead into the introduction of Crane as a jittery opponent of brutality in the name of justice. Depp is rarely better than when he works with Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood). Here he's an eccentric revelation as the big city rationalist coping with supernatural phenomena. Depp has a ridiculous amount of fun with Crane's prissiness, and Burton gets lots of mileage out of spraying him with blood. Burton gets even more mileage out of the spectacular look
of Sleepy Hollow, from the twisted woods to the gloomy town. He nails the spooky side of the story, combining effective action with flying body parts a-plenty whenever the Headless Horseman is at the center of the narrative.
Unfortunately, he's not at the center of the narrative nearly often
enough. Eventually, the film becomes focused on Crane's efforts to
understand the connection between the victims and who might be controlling the Horseman. Crane methodically pieces together clues, notes suspects and ponders motives...and I wonder who might possibly care. The question of the head behind the Headless Horseman not only becomes an irritating distraction -- and means you can count on a tedious expository scene of the villain explaining his/her plan in excruciating detail -- it robs the Horseman of too much power. Andrew Kevin Walker's script (tweaked by Tom Stoppard) turns a primally frightening apparition into little more than hired muscle from beyond the grave. Other plot elements prove burdensome as well -- radically changing the role of Van Tassel's daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci), exploring Crane's dark childhood secrets -- but nothing is so ill-advised as blunting the force of the Horseman.
I suppose that one glaring misstep is so troubling because Sleepy Hollow has so much going for it as one of Burton's typically grim fairy tales. Between the delights of Depp's performance and the dark enchantment of the production design, it's easy to start feeling the potential for brilliance. You only need to feel the energy level rise when the Horseman is on screen to understand that detective work didn't really belong in this story. Sleepy Hollow may be somebody's idea of "fleshing out"
Washington Irving's story, but what it really needed was less
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