**/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras C+
starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon
screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker
directed by Tim Burton
by Bill Chambers Googly eyes that spring forth from a ghoulish figure. A burning windmill. Ghostly choir music. Jeffrey Jones. Sleepy Hollow is Tim Burton's Greatest Hits. The trouble with most compilation albums is that they're superficial, a bunch of songs connected by one flimsy context: retrospection. If this latest gloomfest from Burton doesn't make you yearn for the days when you were witnessing his directorial flourishes for the first time, we saw different films. The storytelling is as shallow as the setting is hollow.
Washington Irving's classic tale has been retooled to the sensibilities of--read: thrown out the window by--Burton and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (of Se7en fame). Schoolteacher Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is now a modern-thinking New York City police constable, albeit a squeamish one, sent upstate with his retrofuturistic forensics tools to investigate a series of decapitations in the foreboding community of Sleepy Hollow. The town's magistrates have pegged the Headless Horseman, the vengeful spirit of a Hessian mercenary, as the killer, but Crane, whose spell-dabbling mother (a breathtaking Lisa Marie) was tortured to death by Crane's puritanical father, prefers to put his faith in logic over the supernatural.
With "Murder, She Wrote" or "Scooby-Doo Mysteries" instead of Irving's text serving as its template, the remainder of the plot feels like busywork. Crane flirts with Katrina (Christina Ricci in a yellow wig--Burton shares that blonde-hair fetish with Hitchcock), the winsome, bleach-browed daughter of landlord Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon). Katrina's hand has already been promised to Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien, who should always play guys named Brom Van Brunt), but love triangles tend to work out badly for the jocks in Burton's brand of Gothic literature. Then there's the orphan (Marc Pickering) who tags along with Crane as a sort of junior Watson and ironic bodyguard, squashing spiders for his foppish mentor.
Burton and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki find some startlingly pretty angles on Rick Heinrichs's striking set design. The director's more outré touches really stand out in this black-and-white-for-colour world combining Hammer horror and German Expressionism--especially Christopher Walken, who leaves a lasting impression as the Horseman. (Don't worry, I haven't spoiled anything.) Walken's unearthly physical presence is well-documented, but here, with snarls for dialogue and a mouthful of pointy Richard Kiel teeth, he achieves heretofore unexplored levels of deranged camp. Though his performance lacks the tragic dimension of the most memorable movie monsters, the very sight of him defibrillates a movie that can be derivative and, for all its idiosyncrasy, oddly safe.
Yes, yes, I know: those unmotivated bolts of lightning, shots of people darting awake from a nightmare in a cold sweat, melodramatic line-readings, and inexplicable fogs are Burton's way of paying tribute to the spookshows he loved as a kid. (Hammer mainstay Christopher Lee even has a cameo.) The effect is muffled by a script as endlessly expository as any by John Elder but lacking the self-awareness to be cleverly so, not to mention a budget that could've funded 50 or 60 Vincent Price AIP flicks. Ichabod and Katrina's cursory romance has been spared the imagination that went into the special effects (which are spectacular), while the resolution--which follows a disappointingly linear carriage-race climax I feel like we just saw in producer Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula--regards this incarnation of Ichabod with a romanticism he hasn't earned. Depp emasculates Ichabod in a jokey way but never does locate the soul of the character, as he did with Edwards Scissorhands and Wood.
It's not that we wind up rooting for the Headless Horseman, it's that we never root for Crane more than perfunctorily. I referred to some of Burton's other work in the opening paragraph--in order: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice; Frankenweenie (a short); his entire catalogue; and Beetlejuice and Ed Wood. Sleepy Hollow is a cinematic Frankenstein that's less than the sum of its parts. Burton's career is on a downswing, I fear--his previous effort, Mars Attacks, was ultimately defeated by its own nihilism. There are hints in Sleepy Hollow of the emotional grandeur of Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, particularly in magical flashbacks to Ichabod's childhood that are as much a love letter to Marie as anything else, but one could argue that it's Burton, if anyone, who loses his head here. Or, at least, his knack.
Lubezki's lush cinematography is done justice by Paramount's DVD release of Sleepy Hollow. Purists will appreciate that the film's bleached colour scheme and well-deep blacks have been preserved; detail is so jaw-dropping that it calls into question the necessity of HDTV. (That being said, because this transfer is inherently dark, I beg thee to watch this movie in a darkened environment.) The 16x9-enhanced image, letterboxed at 1.85:1, is barely compromised by a downconversion for 4:3 displays. The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio meanwhile sounds as good as it did in cinemas, which is to say terrific. What was memorable about the outdoor scenes at a THX screening--a still quality to the dialogue that's downright creepy and isolating (and not merely indicative of the fact that most of the exteriors were shot on a soundstage)--remains so on DVD. The surrounds and sub mainly get a workout from Danny Elfman's score and the horseman's nightly visits, respectively. A somewhat less immersive Dolby Surround track is also included.
Tim Burton contributes a fairly lifeless film-length commentary that confirms his fanboy side, rather than his artistic side, is responsible for Sleepy Hollow--he seems to measure everybody who appears on screen against Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. (I prefer his banter with Paul Reubens on the Pee-Wee's Big Adventure disc.) Burton is more animate in a section of cast and crew interviews (eleven minutes' worth, they additionally feature Depp, Ricci, Gambon, Richardson, and that adorable blockhead Van Dien, who calls Burton's vision "unbelievably believable"). A separate half-hour-long making-of contains interviews as well. This featurette was produced before, not after, the film's theatrical release and therefore comes off as promotional in nature, although a demonstration of how certain F/X were accomplished is riveting. Capping things off: a photo gallery (disappointing in that it only contains stills from the film, no candid snapshots or storyboards or the like); cast and crew bios; Sleepy Hollow's teaser trailer; and its theatrical trailer.
105 minutes; R; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; CC; English subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Paramount