[Screen It]

(1999) (Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci) (R)

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Horror/Suspense: A late 18th century constable travels to Sleepy Hollow to investigate several murders attributed to a headless horseman with a penchant for beheading his victims.
Ichabod Crane (JOHNNY DEPP) is a late 18th century constable whose forensic science investigations into crimes are not only ahead of their time, but also aren't well-received by the more cut and dried judicial system with which he must work.

As such, a local magistrate (CHRISTOPHER LEE) sends Crane to investigate the report of several murders in upstate New York, where the victims have been beheaded. Arriving in the sleepy town of Sleepy Hollow, Crane meets its wealthiest citizen, Baltus Van Tassel (MICHAEL GAMBON), his second wife, Lady Van Tassel (MIRANDA RICHARDSON), and their daughter, Katrina (CHRISTINA RICCI), a young beauty who's immediately taken with him, arousing the suspicions of her suitor, Brom (CASPER VAN DIEN).

Nevertheless, Crane has more important issues to attend to and thus meets with many of the local town leaders including Reverend Steenwyck (JEFFREY JONES), Doctor Lancaster (IAN McDIARMID) and Notary Hardenbrook (MICHAEL GOUGH). They inform him that the grisly deaths are at the hands of the ghost of a Hessian horseman (CHRISTOPHER WALKER) who had a thing for beheading others before meeting a similar demise many years earlier.

Being a man of science, Crane doesn't believe any of this, but after seeing the work of the headless horseman firsthand, he goes into immediate shock, dredging up memories of his mother (LISA MARIE) and her death at the hands of his preacher father. Upon recovering and being accompanied by a recently orphaned boy, Masbath (MARC PICKERING), Crane sets out to figure out exactly what's going on.

Discovering that the horseman seems to have an agenda and doesn't kill at random or even when mildly provoked, Crane tries to figure out who or what controls him while ever more people meet their deaths at the end of a sharp and burning hot sword.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While kids are known to say the darndest things, they're also just as apt to be scared by the darndest of things. Take your faithful reviewer, for instance. As a child I was scared silly by the monstrous, old dead trees that our car headlights would illuminate on the back country roads to my grandparents' house, as well as thoughts of what might be hiding in the closet or lurking under my bed.

More serious frights came from the TV show "Dark Shadows" and the memory of a box tumbling down a flight of stairs and then spilling out a severed head in what I believe was the 1965 film, "Two on a Guillotine." The most effective scares, however, originated with frightening tales heard on the radio and in particular, from one certain album my sister had. It was the audio version of Washington Irving's classic tale, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and it scared the dickens out of me, although I wasn't beyond repeatedly listening to it.

Thus, I had some vested interest in seeing director Tim Burton's version of the story. While the tale of Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman has been told many times before -- including Disney's fabulous 1958 animated version -- Burton, and his usual macabre style of filmmaking and storytelling, seemed a perfect match for this yarn set a long, long time ago in a faraway place known as Sleepy Hollow.

The question that then followed is whether Burton would be able to resurrect the thrills and chills of my childhood experiences with the story. Of course I realize that childhood fears usually don't stand up to later adult scrutiny, and just like the severed box in the head scene probably wouldn't do much for me now, my sister's album similarly might not induce goose bumps or nightmare prone nights, but one could still hold out some hope, right?

Having seen the film, the verdict is now in. While it will most likely scare the pants off any young kids who are allowed to see it, it's not particularly frightening for everyone else despite the increased incidents of the headless horseman doing his handiwork in far greater detail than ever presented before.

That said, I doubt that truly scary moments were actually Burton's intention. Instead, it appears that he was aiming at creating an entertaining haunted house/funhouse type "ride," and for the most part he succeeds.

As such, the campy "frights" come around each turn with giddy anticipation of when the horseman might strike again. That, coupled with characters who are more like caricatures than real people, insures that none of what transpires is meant to be taken seriously as far as "standard" horror films are concerned.

Although screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker ("Fight Club," "Seven") only loosely follows the basic plot of Irving's novel and has obviously taken some artistic liberties (Crane's occupation has been switched from school teacher to constable, the lopped off heads are far more numerous, etc...), the story is still a perfect fit for Burton's filmmaking style.

From "Beetlejuice" to the first two "Batman" flicks and especially regarding his stop-motion animated film "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Edward Scissorhands," the gifted director has constantly shown his highly visualized and humorously macabre viewpoint, and this tale provides yet more material ideally suited for his storytelling approach.

With the changes to the plot, however, the film comes off as something akin to the classic tale as if filtered through the tone of TV's "The X-Files" with Johnny Depp's take on Ichabod Crane being an eclectic combination of the original character and a mixture of Mulder and Scully from that show. If that sounds farfetched, just imagine those two characters being sent to a small and sleepy town where several people have been beheaded. One of the characters is a skeptic who uses forensic science as her investigative tool, while the other is a believer who wants to solve the crime to validate his beliefs.

Of course, the fact that Crane doesn't really know what he's doing and is equipped with a bevy of goofy looking gadgets only adds to the dark humor running throughout the production. Embodying the character with the appropriate ticks and nervous tendencies, Johnny Depp ("Donnie Brasco," Benny & Joon") is well cast and quite enjoyable in the role, perfectly playing the reluctant hero.

As his potential love interest and investigative companion, Christina Ricci ("The Opposite of Sex," the "Addams Family" movies) is decent and continues her line of playing "on the fringe" characters, while Miranda Richardson ("The Crying Game," "Damage") is appropriately conniving as her mother-in-law. No stranger to playing odd characters best described as "being out there," Christopher Walken ("Blast From the Past," "The Deer Hunter") obviously has a fun time hamming it up as the headless horseman when, of course, he has his head.

Otherwise, the ghastly and ghostly character's better known look is created by a variety of visual effects, only serving to add to the film's overall topnotch appearance that includes some fabulous set design work from Rick Heinrichs ("Fargo"), including a faux, but nightmarishly realistic forest and accompanying village. Interestingly enough and of note for trivia buffs, the horseman's ride, when not represented by the real thing, is the retrofitted mechanical horse that Elizabeth Taylor rode in 1944's "National Velvet."

While the film gets repetitive (what with the repeated severing of heads), offers a too precise "Murder She Wrote" type explanation by the villain regarding the murderous motives, and features a "nothing can stop him" creature that's surely some distant ancestor to the Terminator and/or the Energizer Bunny, it does manage to retain a somewhat enjoyable and intentionally campy funhouse type aura to it.

And although some might criticize the film for not being scary enough -- which was my initial reaction -- that would be missing the point and not appreciating the director's approach at telling this well-known story. Oozing with enough atmosphere to fill several movies and that only Burton could create, the film might not please everyone -- especially purist fans of the story -- but is entertaining enough in a macabre type way to earn a passing grade. We give "Sleepy Hollow" a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 11, 1999 / Posted November 19, 1999

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