Rated R - Running Time: 1:45 - Released 11/19/99

The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow is one of Washington Irving's most famous stories; it would make a perfect Halloween movie. Unfortunately, spookmeister Tim Burton's version, Sleepy Hollow, was not released until now, which thoroughly undermines its effectiveness. It shouldn't matter (and if it were a better film, it wouldn't), but had Sleepy Hollow been released a month ago when we were all in seeing black cats and jack-o-lanterns in our sleep, it would have been up against Bats and The House On Haunted Hill, and it would have given them a proper thrashing at the box office. Now that Halloween is over, however, and the film industry has officially entered Oscar season, this flawed opus simply looks like a second-rate period thriller. Too bad.

Sleepy Hollow is special effects make-up man Kevin Yagher's first try as writer, and it shows. Though he had help from more experienced writer Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven), and Irving's main theme is adequately presented, the details of this particular adaptation often seem forced and clumsy. There are various murder mystery-style puzzles for us to figure out, but usually they are uninspired and/or laughably easy to decipher. The tone seems to be in conflict between Burton's usual tongue-in-cheek style and a straight horror/thriller; we don't know if we're supposed to be scared or amused, so neither is true. As one would expect, the effects involving the headless horseman are fun to watch, but much of the non-horseman footage is tiresome. Johnny Depp, who has worked with Burton before in Ed Wood and Edward Scizzorhands, is unable to convince us of any of his character's main motivations, e.g., fear, determination, or affection for his love interest (Christina Ricci). Frankly, he just looks tired. The one character with some life, ironically, is the one who is dead. Christopher Walken (whose only line is "Aaaaarrrrgh!") plays the horseman during the few scenes when he has a head. Walken is fiery and energetic; he's the only one in the film who is.

The year is 1799. Constable Ichabod Crane (Depp), a New York investigator with a penchant for forensics, is chosen to investigate the small upstate town of Sleepy Hollow, where three murders have occurred in two weeks. When he arrives, the town looks just like one dreamed up by Tim Burton — fog, graves, and eerie darkness. He soon meets the town's elders: banker Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), magistrate Phillipse (Richard Griffiths), Doc Lancaster (Ian McDiarmid), Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones), and notary Hardenbrook (Michael Gough). Tales of the Headless Horseman permeate the town, and the skeptical Crane soon believes them, too — after having a few close calls with the villain himself. So the issue becomes a matter of discovering where the horseman comes from, and who (if anyone) is controlling him. There is a mysterious air of conspiracy among the men, a young woman (Ricci) who seems to be practicing witchcraft, and a sub-plot involving the will of a recently deceased town leader.

Depp and Ricci seem to be in a game of one-upsmanship to see who can look more sleepy and uninspired. The town elders are reasonably convincing in their small roles, but the intricacies of the plot seem to drag the film down instead of make it interesting. There are numerous scenes of heads being lopped off, but none are really gory enough to be disturbing. The Burton trademark special effects are typically fun, but the late release and lackluster performances make Sleepy Hollow feel exactly like its title: sleepy and hollow. ***

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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