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Sleepy Hollow

D: Tim Burton / 105m

Cast: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Steven Waddington, Claire Skinner, Christopher Lee, Martin Landau

New York State, 1799.  Young policeman Ichabod Crane (Depp), viewed as an embarrassment by his superiors due to his interest in unorthodox investigation techniques such as fingerprinting and forensic testing, is dispatched upstate to the small hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a spate of murders where the victims have been found headless.  When he arrives he finds the town’s elders, led by Baltus Van Tassel (Gambon), have no doubt as to the murderer’s identity: a vengeful spirit known as the Headless Horseman (Walken).

A disbelieving Crane begins his investigation.  He learns that one of the victims was pregnant at the time of her death and that there is a link between them all to a will made by the first victim, Peter Van Garrett (Landau).  Further slayings take place, though Crane continues to believe the killer is made of flesh and blood.  It’s not until he witnesses the death of Magistrate Phillipse (Griffiths) that he realises that the Headless Horseman is real.

During all this Crane becomes infatuated with Van Tassel’s daughter, Katrina (Ricci).  Along with the son of one of the victims, Young Masbath (Pickering), she helps him find the Horseman’s grave; the skull is missing, convincing Crane that someone is using it to control the Horseman.  Crane deduces that “someone” is Van Tassel as before Van Garrett changed his will, he stood to inherit Van Garrett’s fortune.  Katrina, however, burns the evidence and renounces her feelings for Crane.  Though, when Crane is wounded by the Horseman in a fight, she tends him until he is better.

Things escalate when the town’s notary, Hardenbrook (Gough) takes his own life.  A town meeting is held in the church, during which both Dr Lancaster (McDiarmid) and the Reverend Steenwyck (Jones) are killed, before Van Tassel is claimed by the Horseman.  With Crane’s chief suspect murdered, he begins finally to piece together the identity of the person who is really controlling the Horseman, and the reasons why they have employed him in such a fashion.

Sleepy Hollow - scene

Justly celebrated at the time of its release for its remarkably effective on screen beheadings, Sleepy Hollow was something of a return to form for Burton, who hadn’t directed a movie since the less-than-well received Mars Attacks! (1996).  Although he wasn’t originally scheduled to direct the movie – that was meant to be creature effects designer Kevin Yagher, who also constructed the story with screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker – this is recognisably a Tim Burton movie right from the start, and his tribute to Hammer movies.  With its muted colour palette, and grim rural setting, Sleepy Hollow is not perhaps the most attractive looking movie you’ll ever see, but it definitely suits the action, its steely blues and ghostly greys adding greatly to the often stifling atmosphere.  There’s a real sense of foreboding about the hamlet and its surroundings, and the movie uses Rick Heinrichs’ excellent production design to impressive effect.  And then there’s the Tree of the Dead, a superbly realised gateway to Hell that is almost a character all by itself.

If the screenplay ultimately is a pretty convoluted concoction, with the motivations of the Horseman’s controller proving to be unnecessarily tangled, there’s still tremendous fun to be had from a movie that invokes the spirit of 60’s Hammer movies with such obvious affection, and includes roles for horror icons Christopher Lee and Michael Gough (who was persuaded to come out of retirement for the movie).  The movie’s mix of horror, humour, action and romance is intoxicating, and is helped by a clutch of performances that embrace the proceedings with gusto.  Depp anchors the movie with a slightly prissy interpretation of Ichabod Crane that gives rise to much of the humour, while Ricci is more quietly proficient as Katrina, her role more in keeping with the independent heroine who still requires saving in the final reel.  Gambon does nervous and guilty with aplomb, while Griffiths is a (brief) standout as the petrified Magistrate. And Walken, with his piercing blue eyes and sharply pointed teeth, impresses as the Hessian horseman, all snarling rage and bloodthirsty intensity.  In smaller roles, Richardson, Jones, McDiarmid and Van Dien all have their moments, but it’s a measure of their collective abilities that they aren’t all lost in the mix.

There’s a lot packed into Sleepy Hollow, from the various well-mounted and staged killings (Van Tassel’s is a striking example), to the back story involving Crane’s mother (Lisa Marie), to the elements of witchcraft that underpin the Horseman’s return, to a thrilling three-way battle between Crane, Bram Von Brunt (Van Dien) and the Horseman (Ray Park, fresh from filming his role as Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) and as equally menacing here), but under Burton’s expert guidance, all these disparate components come together to make a richly rewarding whole.  The movie takes the more fantastical aspects of the story and grounds them effectively, and if there’s a few too many occasions where things are glossed over or rushed through in order to get to the Horseman’s next appearance, then overall it doesn’t hurt the movie’s drive.  With its fiery windmill confrontation and stagecoach chase climax, the movie ends on a thrilling note, and provides a suitably horrible fate for both the Horseman and his controller.

Rating: 8/10 – a stylish exercise in period horror, Sleepy Hollow has yet to be equalled or bettered, and features one of the most memorable villains in recent movie history; with its excellent production design and convincing special effects, Burton’s homage to the horror movies of his youth is both memorable and exciting.