Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow (1999) is silly and dark but not especially scary, but I kind of like it. It's not really a horror movie, despite being based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and filled with assorted decapitations and bloodletting, but director Tim Burton crafts a handsome, Gothic production filled with enough of his quirky weirdness and love of old monster movies, namely those of Hammer Film Productions, to make it a solid entry in his oeuvre.

It's more accurate to say the movie is inspired by Washington Irving's story rather than based on it. Instead of a schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is now a New York City constable who believes in rational, evidence-based investigations as a path to justice rather than the superstitions of the past. Annoyed with him, his superiors dispatch him to the town of Sleepy Hollow, where a series of murders have been occurring. The nature of the deaths is peculiar.

"You mean to say their heads weren't found with the bodies?" Ichabod asks one of the townspeople.
"I mean to say their heads weren't found," he is told.

Yes, someone is cutting off heads and collecting them. Ichabod believes he will catch a human culprit, but the townspeople warn him the killer is the Headless Horseman, a Hessian soldier killed during the American Revolution who now has returned as a vengeful ghost.

Visually, Sleepy Hollow is stunning. Burton almost completely drains color out of the aesthetic, except of course for red, to the point the film is practically monochrome. The period details, while not exactly realistic, are exquisitely crafted and flamboyant, especially Ichabod's crime-investigating tools. The forests are realms of mists and shadows that seem to be alive, dead, black trees block the path, and the chirping of frogs can almost block the sound of approaching horse steps. It has the vibe of a dark fairy tale.

Burton includes in the film references to the monster movies of yesteryear. The climax begins in a massive windmill a la Frankenstein where the doctor confronted his monster. The cast also includes a number of veterans of Hammer including Christopher Lee in a cameo as the judge who dispatches Ichabod to Sleepy Hollow and Michael Gough as the notary of Sleepy Hollow who has a secret or two.

Other cast members include Michael Gambon as a prominent town businessman, Christina Ricci as his daughter and Ichabod's love interest, Miranda Richardson as her stepmother, Jeffrey Jones as the reverend, Richard Griffiths as the magistrate, Ian McDiarmid as the doctor, and Casper Van Dien as Ricci's jealous betrothed.

The cast mostly is well suited to this type of movie, hamming it up in period costumes and silly wigs while keeping a straight face. Ricci's something of a disappointment in what ultimately comes down to a damsel-in-distress part, but the real letdown is the Horseman himself, played by an uncredited Christopher Walken, at least when his head is visible. He looks silly, especially the sharpened teeth, and his constant growling (no dialogue) is ridiculous. To be fair, the Horseman, as seen without his head, is an impressive creation.

Depp takes a little getting used to. Most heroes tend to be heroic and made of sterner stuff, but Ichabod is squeamish, the kind of guy who hops on a chair when he sees a spider on the floor and begs a boy to get rid of it. His late-movie heroics seem a bit too courageous for him, but hey, he's the hero; he's got to do something heroic. I could have done without all the flashbacks to his childhood with his mother. They stop the movie dead, and Sigmund Freud would have a field day with them.

The tagline for Sleepy Hollow is "Heads Will Roll," and they weren't kidding. It's gruesome but not revolting. The Horseman chops off plenty of heads, and literally, they often roll across the ground before he skewers them like an olive on a toothpick. Gross but hard not to find amusing. When the time calls for it, the Horseman uses different methods to get to his victims' heads, so the killings never become repetitive.

Plot has never really been a strength of Burton's, nor is it here. Expanding the story, Burton adds buried town secrets, family legacies, and personal vendettas, but there are so many names and characters, it's easy to get lost and not quite follow everything. When the true villain of the piece is revealed, it requires a lot of explanation, and by then, who cares?

Sleepy Hollow is dark fun. Maybe not all it could have been, but it does give me the chance to see Casper Van Dien ripped to pieces, a visual cruelly denied to me by Starship Troopers. That counts for something.

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