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DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton
FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Christopher Walken
PLOT: Constable Ichabod Crane is sent from New York City to investigate a string of murders in Sleepy Hollow only to find that there are grisly supernatural machinations afoot.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If Tim Burton maintained the off-kilter, whimsical bloodiness of the film’s first half throughout, it might have stood a chance. Unfortunately, the tone and narrative collapse together as the movie progresses.
COMMENTS: We’ve spilled a fair amount of ink writing about our mounting disappointment in Tim Burton—a director who had such promise starting out, with a string of odd-to-weird hits including Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Apocrypha Candidate Beetlejuice. The end of the last millennium also heralded the end of Burton’s dalliance with weirdness, and Sleepy Hollow acts, appropriately, as the gravestone to his career in weird cinema.
After its haunting introduction, the story proper begins down by the docks, in a young New York City, as Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp, in perhaps his last role before the living ghost of Hunter S. Thompson took full possession of him) pulls a bloated corpse from the waters. Irked by his cleverness, but bowing to his investigative acumen, the authorities send him packing to the gloomy town of Sleepy Hollow, as a string of murders there has left a terrified populace along with a growing stack of headless victims. He immediately is smitten by the fey Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the daughter of the town’s chief farmer, magistrate, and all around patriarch Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon). Crane soon begins his twitchy investigation, uncovering a conspiracy involving some very dark arts.
With Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton reaches the peak of his storybook, Expressionistic powers. Smoke and clouds are used to the most sinister of effects. Dark dreams filled with white magic and black torture batter the hero’s consciousness. The movie’s wicked ambience—gloomy landscapes, stunted buildings, and colorful townsfolk—seems impossible to maintain. And so it turns out to be. The strangeness of seeing Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, and Michael Gough as the gaggle of terrified and powerful officials is undercut, unfortunately, by two serious casting errors. I am a big fan both of Christina Ricci and Miranda Richardson, but in Sleepy Hollow the former is too childlike, and the latter too modern.
Obviously, Christopher Walken helps—he always does. His dialogue-free performance as “the Hessian” would have been a major selling point had the marketers not (commendably) opted to keep his presence hush-hush. But as I said, the whole venture starts crumbling as we learn more about the conspiracy (all these machinations for what is, effectively, a mere cash grab) and as Ichabod Crane develops his increasing fancy for Katrina (who is simultaneously fascinating and charmless). While it’s not a high water mark for Burton, Sleepy Hollow is his last good movie. (This position is perhaps affected by my own nostalgia, having seen it in theaters in my younger days.) Had he gone full tilt, it could have been a great movie.
Speaking of tilting, there is that fiery showdown at a windmill, an apt metaphor for the film. Tim loses his nerve, and crashes and burns.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Heads roll, bodies pile up, and the horseman — played in flashback by a mega-weird Christopher Walken — rises from the dead. Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven, turns Irving’s Sleepy Hollow into one fucked-up farm town, filled with adultery, theft, murder and witchcraft. It’s a Burton kind of place.” -Peter Travers, Rolling Stone (contemporaneous)