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Release Date:   November 20th, 1999


Ichabod Crane - Johnny Depp
Katrina Van Tassel - Christina Ricci
Baltis Van Tassel - Michael Gambon
Lady Van Tassel - Miranda Richardson
Reverend Steenwyck - Jeffrey Jones

Director: Tim Burton

Previews:  Play It To The Bone ($$), Galaxy Quest ($$$), The Talented Mr Ripley ($$), Man In The Moon ($$$$ )

I grew up in a small town in Kansas. It was a small town, like most, full of its little quirks, eccentricities and charms. It was also full of legends, little stories and rumors that had passed from generation to generation, with each probably adding a dose of their own touch for flavor.  My town was no different. One of the more curious ones, at least for curious high school students, like myself, was the legend of a place called Spooky Hollow (get the connection now?).  I cannot remember the exact details of the story, but I can remember that it was either haunted by a witch or a beast of some kind, or controlled by the Mafia.  Details and facts that were lost in the translation I’m sure. Spooky Hollow was a haunting, menacing place, that consisted of a single mile long stretch of dirt road, guarded over by long withering tree limbs on either side.   These limbs seemed to join together above the road, and at night, traveling down it seemed like a chilling game of London Bridge.  It is no doubt in my mind that this legend, and name, was in some way inspired by the legendary Washington Irving story   "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."  It is a tale most people are familiar with, a headless horseman, haunting a town and the meager soul and existence of Ichabod Crane.

Tim Burton’s loosely adapted cinematic version also takes inspiration from Irving’s tale.  It keeps Crane, turning him into a constable, and of course it keeps the horseman, a dark, menacing swordsman on a powerful black steed.  Save that, and a few other details, that is where the similarities end.  Maybe if Burton had stayed truer to the original, and hadn’t felt the need to turn this legend into a Scooby Doo style whodunit, it would have had a more powerful effect on me.  As it is, it is creepy, chilling, fun, visually amazing, yet conclusively a slight letdown.

Sleepy Hollow is a dark fairy tale with the exception  that this tale does not really have a positive message but is still in the mode of a story, on the border of reality.   The atmosphere is set masterfully with its use of darkness, foreboding clouds, poorly lit rooms and a village whose buildings and residents, have seen better days.  Picture if Currier and Ives did your Halloween decorations.    Kudos to the cinematographer, art director, and the manager of my theater complex, who seemingly dropped the thermostat a few degrees to set the mood.    Even without that, I felt as if I was there, in the late winter days of New England. 

The performance of Johnny Depp adds to the pleasure of Sleepy Hollow.   He just seems to fit into whatever role he is given.  Similar to Edward Norton (oh to see the two of them together in a role) he makes you forget that you are watching an actor in a role.  He is at the same time, innocent, knowing, scared, enlightened and confident.  He gives more dimension to Crane than most of us thought that he had. Ricci is as wasted and unnecessary as Depp is good.  She just seemed like a high school student who had found some cool costumes, and was now trying to walk around and pretend like she was living in the era of her clothing. I understand the necessity of her character, but couldn’t they have found someone else ala Cate Blanchett, or Kate Winslet to fill this role better?  I am sorry Christina, your name is not Kate, so just stick to the dark indie films, period pieces are not your bag.

I have harped, in more recent reviews, about the use and overuse of violence in movies.   However here, it is fitting, and makes perfect sense. Burton knows how, and when to use it, and never overdoes it.  He never takes it, or the story, too seriously, or lightly.  That is a deft touch that not many directors have. In a lot of ways, Burton reminds me of author Stephen King.  Both can really weave a dark, mysterious, surrealistic creepy mood, with a simple wave of a hand.  Conversely, you would not want either to tell you a bedtime story.  Unfortunately though, another similarity in my eyes, is the inability to sometimes finish what they start.  This is the case here.  He opens up with a masterful visual sequence, weaves and pulls us into a story that brings us to the edge of our seats at times. Then he slaps on an ending that is sensible, but a letdown and  slightly inconsistent with the theme and mood of the rest of the movie.  It is as if Burton started something, that he really couldn’t finish.  All of this left me with a satisfied, only slightly empty taste in my mouth.  I thirsted for an ending that matched the spirit, intensity and atmosphere of the beginning, but at least it did make sense, so I’m not really that upset.

Ultimately, Sleepy Hollow is innocent well-done entertainment.  It is a dark vision, full of potential that is not completely realized, nor totally wasted.  The key to fear, is in the unknown.  What we cannot see, what we hear of, or about which builds up inside us so much, that the ultimate realization or vision can either be a disappointment, or so powerful that words cannot describe it.  Burton never builds fear in Sleepy Hollow, but you do feel the tension and terror in the characters.   Watch for Depp’s wonderful realization sequence.  While the original tale would spin well around a campfire, this one comes in as more of 80's style Urban Legend in it’s retelling.  My suggestion is to pack up the friends in the Mystery Machine, and head north, but beware of the wooden bridges near your theater. ($$$ out of $$$$)

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