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Horseman, Pass By

Sleepy Hollow looks great, but it's less filling than Washington Irving

"The spectre is known at all the country firesides by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow," writes Washington Irving in his original fantasy. Thanks in large part to the silly, watered-down fun of the animated Disney version, the Horseman and his victim, the gangling and gallant Ichabod Crane, have firmly lodged themselves in popular consciousness. Even those possessing only a passing familiarity with the story can clearly picture the "affrighted pedagogue" fleeing the "Galloping Hessian."

Sleepy Hollow, the latest (and largest) adaptation of the classic tale, latches onto Irving's basic characters and elements, but then proceeds to rewrite the whole scheme, producing a wild and loose variation that is light on suspense but heavy on surprises. Comparisons simply do not hold, for despite its rich attention to period detail and dreamy hues, this story is kin to the original chiefly in its aesthetic. Gone is the tottering schoolmaster from Connecticut, his lonesome rides, his mysterious vanishing. Irving's story is gutted and cannibalized to produce an expanded narrative, a cousin perhaps in tone, a stranger in terms of plot.

It is 1799, and this Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is an edgy New York City cop... er... constable, a sharp-witted sleuth blessed (or cursed) with an affinity for obtuse scientific practices, especially in the field of pathology. When three corpses are discovered -- headless -- in the Hudson Valley borough of Sleepy Hollow, Crane is sent, by the stern Burgomaster (Christopher Lee), to investigate. After dispatching his pet cardinal from the window of his laboratory/apartment, Crane soon enough finds himself in the tiny Dutch village, where his appearance prompts the paranoid shutting of lead glass windows (yes, Depp once again plays the cuddly outsider).

Depp is no more Ichabod Crane than Jack Nicholson was the Joker.
Clive Coote
Depp is no more Ichabod Crane than Jack Nicholson was the Joker.

As soon as the forlorn elegance of the town is established, Crane makes the acquaintance of fey and lovely Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), whose father, Baltus (Michael Gambon) and mother, the Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson), are counted among Sleepy Hollow's more elite denizens. Their wealth cannot save them, however, from the murderous Headless Horseman (with head, in flashback, Christopher Walken), a ghostly mercenary with a thing for decapitation. A quorum of patriarchs, including Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones), Magistrate Philipse (Richard Griffiths), Dr. Lancaster (Ian McDiarmid) and Notary Hardenbrook (Michael Gough), relate the demon's tale to the overconfident Crane, who sets out immediately to crack the case.

Death continues to visit the town, with the Horseman's arrival heralded by impressive blasts of lightning through the mist. Unsupported and even shunned by the people he's striving to save, Crane performs messy autopsies and messier interviews, convinced that the culprit is a flesh and blood man -- until he encounters the ghoul head-on. Thereafter, he swiftly deduces that the evil spirit is intimately linked to a mystery among the villagers. Teamed with Katrina and the orphaned Young Masbath (Marc Pickering), and plagued by dreams of his own doomed mother, Crane makes the dissolution of this evil his spiritual quest.

Sleepy Hollow's strength is in its look, which is jaw-droppingly beautiful, a personal best for director Tim Burton, aided by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The movie's style, with its icy glow and masterful use of shadow and fog, is comparable to Burton's Edward Scissorhands, or Batman. But unlike those outings, Sleepy Hollow dodges suburban kitsch and cold modernism to deliver lush, organic tableaux. (Shooting this quintessentially American tale in England may have upped the inspiration.) Consider how fantastic the themed rides at Disneyland are to children. With his winding lanes and windmills enshrouded in mist, Burton and his production designers have labored to create that sensation for adults. It wouldn't be too far off the mark to call their vision spectacular.

Sadly, these incredible efforts are bound in service to a mediocre script. While it's fair game to snatch up a classic and revise it (executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, who seems to know a thing or two about filmmaking, has tried his hand at this before, in varying capacities, including Dracula, Frankenstein and Moby Dick), Andrew Kevin Walker's take on Sleepy Hollow excises the story's hypnotic allure and tension, and instead focuses primarily on hard, fast action. In his hands, the Horseman becomes less an enigmatic horror than an antiquated version of Friday the 13th's Jason, or even a less talkative Darth Maul. (For the record, Ray Park, who played Maul, is credited as one of two Headless Horseman stunt players.)

Unlike Steven Spielberg's Hook, which also sought to revise a classic fantasy but dissolved into an incomprehensibly awful mess, Sleepy Hollow stays tight and true to its own ends. But another problem with Walker's script is the bloody heart it wears so heavily on its sleeve. Part of the sly subtext of Irving's tale is the clashing of darkly mystical and staunchly Christian elements in the somnolent town. Walker (Seven, 8mm) has chosen to amp this conflict to a ludicrous degree, until it becomes an inquisition of evil Bible-thumpers against poofy pagans, the latter merely wishing to be left alone to scribble silly glyphs in the dirt. ("Villainy wears many masks," Crane exhorts, "none so dangerous as the mask of virtue!") While this undercurrent would be intriguing if both sides were better developed, being bludgeoned with it on this level is tiresome.

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