Volume 93, Issue 48

Wednesday, November 24, 1999


Bringing their northern touch

Sleepy Hollow confused as a headless chicken

Kinder too slow and depressing

Ancient unmasks too much horror

Sleepy Hollow confused as a headless chicken

Photo by Clive Coote
BETWEEN HIS SCISSOR HANDS AND HER BLINDFOLD, ICHABOD AND KATRINA HAD THE MAKINGS FOR A HIGHLY EVENTFUL EVENING. Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci team up for Tim Burton's new suspense thriller, Sleepy Hollow.

By Anthony Turow
Gazette Staff

The world in Tim Burton's new film, Sleepy Hollow, is so well imagined visually – equal parts gothic nightmare and baroque painting – that it's a shame one has to leave the theatre feeling so disappointed.

Based on Washington Irving's classic tale about the Headless Horseman and the havoc he wreaks on a titular New York town, this version just doesn't translate well to the big screen. Tension never adequately builds and characters seem to wander on and off the screen just to help explain parts of a story which seems unnecessarily convoluted to begin with.

Johnny Depp stars as Ichabod Crane, a constable brought from New York City to examine a recent wave of murders in which each of the victims has been beheaded. Depp's performance is excellent – he plays Crane with a perfect mix of paranoia and fear. That said, he very well may be the most effeminate, cowardly hero in film history, fainting constantly and cowering like a little girl at even the slightest hint of danger.

Christina Ricci doesn't fare quite as well. Her performance as Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of one of the town's elders, is way off the mark. Period dialogue sounds clunky coming out of her mouth – she just doesn't sell her lines. Most of her screen time is spent with Depp and she can't hold her own. Depp creates a character, whereas Ricci just says her lines and leaves.

Pity poor Tim Burton. Without exaggeration, he is one of the most brilliant visual storytellers around. His movies resonate with rich, hallucinatory imagery which emulate cartoons and graphic novels. Burton puts his distinctive gonzo stamp on every movie he makes. The problem, as Sleepy Hollow illustrates, is that when he doesn't have a coherent script he pours on the atmosphere to compensate and it shows. He needs strong source material to compliment his vision and curb his tendency to get too self-indulgent.

Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker's (Seven) first misstep is trying to make the story too complicated. What we expect is a chiller that pits man against a dark demon from the depths of hell. What we get is a confused movie which tries to do too much at once. The Horseman still does his share of slicing and scaring, but there are also unnecessary subplots involving conspiracies and witchcraft. It's conceivable that Burton and Walker intended to flesh out Irving's story, but all they do is weigh it down. It's tough to be scared when you're being bombarded with extraneous plot devices.

In spite of it's shortcomings, Sleepy Hollow isn't entirely horrible. Depp brings a much needed sense of humour to his role and numerous parts are filled admirably by veteran horror actors Christopher Lee and Michael Gough. Christopher Walken is also quite menacing as the Horseman before his, ahem, accident. These things, along with the cool aesthetics of the film, will keep viewers from falling asleep. Maybe.

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Copyright The Gazette 1999