Sleepy Hollow

     You know the story: a legendary headless horseman is said to be roaming the countryside around a small town, lopping heads off left and right, and lily-livered schoolmaster Ichabod Crane is understandably frightened.

     Well, add witches and magic, and change Ichabod into an easily frightened but determined policeman who's certain that reason, logic and scientific methods will provide the answers to everything, and you've got Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow.

     Detective Ichabod Crane is played with perfectly nuanced comedic skill by Johnny Depp. Yep, I said comedic. Despite the fact that this is an extremely bloody movie with more beheadings, vivisections and other forms of body hacking per square foot of film than your average slasher flick, it's still primarily a comedy. And not only that, it's a relatively effective comedy--Tim Burton's peculiarly delicious brand of black humor at its finest. The only time the movie fails is when it tries to get serious. The dramatic dialogue is stilted, obvious, and corny, and most of the important plot points are disappointingly formulaic and predictable.

     For instance, when the evil mastermind behind the horseman plot is finally revealed, he/she proceeds to explain his/her whole plan to us in classic evil mastermind fashion. He/she lists for us in excruciating detail how and why each murder was committed. He/she even tacks on the explanation of a few more murders we didn't even know about, then tells us the story of how he/she became an evil mastermind. The lack of imagination in the construction of this sequence is really disappointing.

     Also, you may have seen a shot in the trailers of a windmill exploding and wondered what the hell that was all about. Well, I was wondering that, too when I saw the actual scene in the movie. The mill is not filled with gunpowder, and there are no bombs. It just gets set on fire and then, for no reason, obliterates itself. It seems to blow up simply so that the movie could have a scene in which our heroes narrowly escape from an exploding building. This is another point where Sleepy Hollow is just mindlessly and meaninglessly fulfilling the requirements of a genre.

     But a good deal of imagination did go into some parts of this film. Visually, Sleep Hollow is perfect. The sets, special effects, costumes, props, cinematography and lighting all work together to create just the right atmosphere of surreal, gothic spookiness. In a less visually interesting film, Tim Burton's starkly symmetrical framing might have been boring, but because what's in the frame is so fascinating and eerily beautiful, it works.

     Also, the headless horseman is an excellent monster. In the flashback scenes, when he still has a head, he is played by Christopher Walken, who attacks the role with his usual amount of gleefully vicious intensity. Walken is a great actor with more range than most people give him credit for, but he's always been best at playing villains, and this part is no exception. He doesn't have a lot of screen time, but the time he does have is an absolute delight.

     But if Walken is the horseman's head, Ray Park, the same stuntman and fight expert who played Darth Maul in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, is his body. No doubt we have Park (and stunt coordinator Nick Gillard, who also worked on Episode I) to thank for the exciting and well-choreographed fighting sequences in the film.

     Though Depp, Walken and Park are the stand-outs, there are numerous other fine actors in the cast, including the extremely talented and beautiful Christina Ricci (The Addams Family, Buffalo 66) as the mysterious and alluring Katrina Van Tassel; Michael Gambon (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) as Katrina's father and for all intents and purposes the mayor of the town; Miranda Richardson (Tom & Viv) as Lady Van Tassel; Michael Gough (Batman), Ian McDiarmid (Episode I) and Jeffrey Jones (Amadeus) as three more of the town fathers; and great horror film actor Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula) in a bit part as a judge.

     Unfortunately, although both the actors involved in the romantic sub-plot of Sleepy Hollow are good (I'm referring to Depp and Ricci), the relationship just doesn't work. The lovers' dialogue sounds like bad Victorian poetry, pretentious and stiffly formal, and the happy, romantic Hollywood ending is, once again, formulaic and disappointing.

     It's really the acting, the clever, comic elements of the screenplay, and the great visuals that carry this film as far as it goes. And it goes far enough, I suppose, for a film of this type, even if it is in many ways just plugging slightly different elements into the same old formulas.

Jim Genzano

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