Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Sleepy Hollow (1999) - posterDirected by Tim Burton

A headless horseman is terrorizing the early New England countryside by decapitating residents of a quiet village. A policeman, an early version of the modern detective, is sent to investigate and solve the crimes, and apprehend the one responsible for them.

Based on a famous American folk tale by Washington Irving, the movie Sleepy Hollow is the story processed through a modern sensibility.

Because of this, it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of a really good ghost/horror folk tale, largely because it can’t quite take it seriously.

What we get, then, is a movie that is a bit tongue-in-cheek and, even more, a film fascinated by certain imagery. The images, however, while fabulous, also fall a bit flat because they lack meaningful content. They’re simply cool images.

This tends to be the ongoing complaint with Tim Burton movies. They look incredible but they don’t have much depth.

There are a number of things missing in Sleepy Hollow that may have added to it. For one thing, while everyone is in great period costumes, the costumes don’t mean much other than, again, to look cool. There is no actual sense of the period in the film.

Given where the village of Sleepy Hollow is set geographically and, more importantly, historically (the period it is set – New England at the turn of the 18 century to the 19th), it is a Puritan community. Yet the film provides no sense of the repression that should characterize it. While there are some hints of sexual relationships and activity, there is no feeling of it being denied. Sleepy Hollow could be any modern community except for the fact they dress in a peculiar way.

Because there is such a tongue-in-cheek feel to the film, there is also little sense for the villagers’ belief in the headless horseman or the period Christian belief system that should inform such people.

What we get, then, is a film that dazzles with its imagery. It captures the look of such a story beautifully. And while we’re sometimes taken by surprise with some scenes and some cuts, we’re never actually frightened because we’re never credibly drawn into the fear of the villagers.

This is a very modern film in the sense that it is not the story of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (which it does not pretend to replicate on film, hence the changed title). It is a movie about horror movies, especially the old Hammer films. But part of the reason Hammer films worked was due to having a story to tell and taking that story seriously, however incredible and unlikely it might be.

What we get with Sleepy Hollow is not a good ghost-horror story but a kind of visually entertaining lecture on old horror films. It’s interesting but not particularly satisfying, especially when people generally go to films for a good story.

Having said all this, it should also be said that despite its wrong-headed approach, Sleepy Hollow has a lot to recommend it, particularly the curious and quirky performance of Johnny Depp. He plays Ichabod Crane comedically through much of the movie. Unfortunately, the performance just seems to be in the wrong film.

Miranda Richardson is also wonderful as a nasty second wife, and the town elders are also grand – they look marvelous, each with a very odd appearance.

For looks, you can’t go wrong with Sleepy Hollow. Tim Burton again dazzles us with an oddball, riveting assembly of fascinating images.

But it would be nice if his storytelling sense was on a par with his visual.

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