Sleepy Hollow (1999)

D: Tim Burton
S: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci

Despite a promising subject, a great cast, and a wealth of rich production design and special effects, Tim Burton's follow up to Mars Attacks! is not an improvement. Based loosely on "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving (though bearing relatively little resemblance to it) the film concerns the events which transpire when eighteenth century New York detective Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a man with peculiar ideas about science and forensics which get him in trouble in the city, is assigned the task of investigating a series of brutal decapitations in the wilds of Sleepy Hollow, a rural community which seems to exist on the edge of imagination rather than 'somewhere upstate'. Upon his arrival, the eccentric detective encounters superstition and myth as the murders are blamed on the spectral headless horseman (Christopher Walken, with head), a mercenary warrior executed by revolutionaries some years before and now, presumably, out for revenge from beyond the grave. Skeptical Depp sets out to disprove the hocus pocus with scientific methods, and finds himself embroiled in a political conspiracy peppered with numerous subsequent decapitations. Bizarrely though, he soon abandons his scientific rationale and finds himself in a different film altogether, a rather conventional, certainly not frightening, horror movie in which the supernatural force must be contained and the status quo restored before we can all rest in peace. The abrupt change of direction mid-way through, coupled with the rather monotonous and repetitive frequency with which a fine cast of British character actors have their heads lopped off by the galloping ghoul, leaves little meat on the skeleton of atmospheric costumes, sets, and cinematography, and the film collapses into a frivolous and messy series of grand guignol moments and references to other horror films. Only Depp's intricate performance saves it from itself, but even this cannot compensate for what seems a phenomenal waste of resources almost on the scale of Barry Sonnenfeld's Wild Wild West, or indeed Mars Attacks!

The problems become evident upon viewing the cast list, which includes Christopher Lee, Michael Gambon, Michael Gough, Richard Griffiths, Jeffrey Jones, Ian McDiarmid, Miranda Richardson, Martin Landau, Christopher Walken, Casper Van Dien, and Lisa Marie. Despite this, only Depp and Christina Ricci have substantial screen time. The rest find themselves reduced to either brief cameos or headless corpses before long, leaving little time for anything to develop in the way of character dynamics. Though Depp is marvellous as the nervous young man with the (initially) unshakable faith in science and rationality, his characterisation is not enough to hang the entire film on, not when there's this type of talent available and when lovely production designs by Rick Heinrichs and costumes by Colleen Atwood are shown off by Emanuel Lubezki's cinematography to Danny Elfman's score. The film certainly has the look and feel of classic American gothic, and it boasts the kind of windswept matte paintings and dark, gnarled forests which haven't been seen since Roger Corman's Poe films with Vincent Price. This has always been Burton's home soil, of course, and we have seen this landscape many times in his films, from the twisted (but not technological) urban dystopia of Batman and Batman Returns to the surreal dreamscapes of Beetlejuice and Henry Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas (Burton's conception regardless of director). Edward Scisscorhands would not look out place wandering these dark forests and misty marshes, and who knows, Ed Wood might turn up with a camera to film him. On a superficial visual level and in terms of its design, Sleepy Hollow is vintage Burton. But the poverty of narrative imagination shows quickly, and as events become less and less interesting (oh, there goes another head... ooops, there goes another one), even the little visual touches such as mists which snuff out torches, the horseman's assault on a Church, or a tree engorged with human blood are ephemeral and uninteresting when there's no reason for any of it.

The thematic centre of the film is severely damaged by Burton's insistence on switching direction half way through, and though it rises to a bravura finale with a series of well mounted chases and a James Whale-esque showdown in a windmill, the film has become all too slavishly devoted to the mechanics of supernatural horror when it seemed poised to set turn-of-the-century urban, technological evolution against the peasant myths of the haunted, rural landscape. Though there are elements of ghoulish black humour present, it really does go for shock and horror. Burton attempts to build tension with ominous hoofbeats on the soundtrack as terrified townsfolk peer into the dark woods in anticipation of the next fatal swish of steel. But as this basic scene is repeated over and over, it becomes something akin to Mars Attacks!'s celebrity charnel house, with the stellar cast being bumped off simply for the sake of it. The audience certainly doesn't care, and how could they when people are on screen for so brief a spell? A weakly-developed romance between Depp and Ricci is meant to provide some degree of human emotion, but Ricci comes off as stilted and mannered in spite of her sensual appearance and Depp is too flaky to take seriously as a romantic figure. Despite the craft of his performance, Depp's Ichabod Crane is little more than the 'final girl' of the 80's slasher film, who seems to win out because there's no one left to dispatch the monster, not because he's earned it through his endearing blundering and fumbling.

There are some nice moments in the film, and it has been assembled with some technical prowess and visual flair, but there's no real centre to it other than Depp's performance and no genuine sense of the morality play which is so important to the genre. There are some dark rumblings about corruption, religion, morality, sexuality, and power, but it all comes together in a series of weak twists and hysterical grotesqueries which produce inappropriate laughter rather than chills or sombre reflection. There's nothing wrong with playing the conventions for laughs, but Burton does not really do so in spite of the goofiness of Depp's character. There are all too many scenes of violence and suspense for it to be just a gag, and if it is, then, like in Mars Attacks! it is a gag beaten to death for much too long. I'm inclined to view the film more as a failed straight horror film which contains the tongue-in-cheek elements so often seen nowadays and which sometimes add flavour, but which sometimes overwhelm the scares to the cost of the film. Sleepy Hollow is not a giggle-up-the-sleeve postmodern pastiche in the style of Scream and The Faculty, but, as in those films, there simply are not enough genuine scenes of fright and terror. Burton has failed to generate the emotional affect required to make it work as a genre piece, and though he has obviously amassed a wealth of good intentions and basic craftsmanship, he has not made good use of them.

This film is an inevitable disappointment which will give devotees even more pause for thought than the last one, and one hopes that Burton can turn it around before the failures become the rule rather than the exception. It's been a long time since Ed Wood, and it won't take long before audiences begin to associate him with expensive, silly, over-the-top dumbfests instead of off-beat and imaginative works of speculative fiction. There is sometimes an all-too fine line between these, and Burton is doing the latter (and himself) no favours at the moment.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.