by Mel Valentin
Tim Burton’s ("Alice in Wonderland," "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," "Corpse Bride," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Mars Attacks!," "Ed Wood," "Batman Returns," "Edward Scissorhands," "Batman") of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, shows Burton both his best (visual design) and his worst (dramatic storytelling). "Sleepy Hollow" is a seriously flawed, but highly watchable homage to the Universal and Hammer Studios’ horror films, thanks to the aforementioned visual design and Johnny Depp’s eccentric characterization as the faint-prone, insecure, eccentric, squeamish Ichabod Crane (a constable here rather than a schoolteacher). If only Burton cared as much about characters or dramatic conflict as he does about visual style, "Sleepy Hollow" could have taken its place as a genre classic.On an isolated, fogbound road in upstate New York, the Headless Horseman pursues Peter Van Garrett (Martin Landau), an elderly landowner and town leader. Van Garrett suffers the fate of many before him (and many after him): a swift, merciless death by decapitation. A burgomaster (Christopher Lee) assigns Ichabod Crane (Depp), an awkward, insecure New York constable disliked for his modern views on forensic science and civil liberties, to investigate Van Garrett’s murder. The gruesome murder gives Crane the opportunity to test the latest in 18th-century technology. Assigning Crane to the case in Sleepy Hollow removes a troublesome annoyance from the burgomaster’s court.
"Another style-over-substance effort from Mr. Burton."
In Sleepy Hollow, Crane meets the Town’s powers-that-be, including Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones), Magistrate Philipse (Richard Griffiths), Doctor Lancaster (Ian McDiarmid), and Notary Hardenbrook (Michael Gough). Crane also meets Van Tassel’s daughter, Katrina (Christina Ricci), her stepmother, Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson), and one of Katrina’s suitors, Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien).
The Headless Horseman takes another head, this time killing a night guard. The man’s newly orphaned son, Young Masbath (Marc Pickering), petitions Crane to become his assistant. Crane changes his mind when he realizes that science and logic may be insufficient to defeat the Headless Horseman. Crane continues to suspect a human, rather than a supernatural, villain when the town’s elders, each carefully targeted, continue to die. Katrina’s increasingly secretive behavior, however, proves to be one obstacle among several (including a major trauma from his childhood that keeps showing up in his nightmares) Crane has to overcome if he’s to solve the mystery behind the Headless Horseman and, more importantly, survive.
Andrew Kevin Walker (The Wolf Man, 8mm, Se7en) received sole screenwriting credit for Sleepy Hollow, but Kevin Yagher received a co-writing credit. Playwright Tom Stoppard provided an uncredited rewrite/polish. Unfortunately, three writers weren’t enough (or maybe they were too much) to solve Sleepy Hollow's myriad story problems. The decapitation-prone Headless Horseman appears too often, each appearance less effectively than the last. The first decapitation is surprisingly explicit and gruesome. By the time we get to the third decapitation, the law of diminishing returns has kicked in (as true in filmmaking as it is in economics). When the Headless Horseman takes his seventh head, it’s a sure sign that Burton has run out of ideas, leaving only the revelation of the secret villain and the subsequent set piece (which took three weeks to shoot) to keep audiences superficially engaged.
Burton gives away the villain's identity too early in the film. Burton fundamentally errs by removing the mystery behind the Headless Horseman’s identity and nature, not as the embodiment of revenge for a life taken illegitimately or other wrong committed against him, but as a Hessian mercenary (played by a shock-haired, sharp-teethed Christopher Walken in flashbacks) killed in battle. As the Headless Horseman gets a backstory of his own, his potency as a nightmarish figure diminishes proportionately. The Headless Horseman becomes even less terrifying once Crane and the audience discover the Headless Horseman serves a more powerful master (the aforementioned villain).
Visually, Neo-gothic production design (courtesy of Burton’s collaboration with Rick Heinrichs) has rarely, if ever, looked better. Burton set out to pay homage to Hammer Studios’ Golden Age (1957-1970). On a narrative/dramatic level, however, Burton often stumbles. Where Burton has succeeded (e.g., Sweeney Todd, Ed Wood, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns), it's because he had collaborators who clearly understood the demands dramatic storytelling. Burton’s shortcomings as a storyteller make an auteurist claims for Burton much more difficult to support. At best, Burton counts half an auteur. While that might sound like a harsh assessment of a commercially successful director, it's an assessment that Burton has repeatedly proven over a career spanning three decades.In addition to the production and art design, "Sleepy Hollow" benefits from Emmanuel Lubezki’s shadow-heavy, impressionist cinematography and Colleen Atwood’s multi-hued, textured costume designs. While old school horror fans will get a kick out of the pea-soup-thick Gothic atmosphere and mood derived from Hammer Studios’ Golden Age, Burton also references Universal Studios’ horror output during the 1930s, a key inspiration for Hammer Studios twenty five years later, specifically James Whale’s "Frankenstein" and "The Bride of Frankenstein," released in1931 and 1935, respectively. "Sleepy Hollow’s" climax inside a burning windmill is all you need to know about where Burton’s obsessions lie.
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originally posted: 05/10/10 23:00:00