Heads roll in icky `Sleepy'

Review: Director Tim Burton's loose interpretation of the Ichabod Crane story is richly imagined, but the gore gets a bit out of control.

November 19, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Blood flows prodigiously, spurts spontaneously and puddles luxuriously in "Sleepy Hollow," Tim Burton's very loose adaptation of the Washington Irving story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." As usual, Burton has his finger right on the pulse of audiences looking for frightening flights of fancy, creating a wonderfully atmospheric world that is gloomily enchanted with murderous spirits, vengeful ghosts and supernatural dervishes of destruction.

Which makes it all the more disappointing when Burton -- who, after all, brought us the first two "Batman" movies as well as the morbidly visionary "Edward Scissorhands" -- nudges the entire enterprise over the top with googly-eyed skeletons, a megaplex-friendly action sequence set in a windmill and way, way too many rolling-head shots.

Whether these departures are expressions of Burton's artistic vision or more cynical panderings to a mass audience that might miss his otherwise impressive accomplishments in "Sleepy Hollow," the end result is the same: Just when Burton has drawn filmgoers in completely with his vividly realized imaginary world, he breaks the spell with wildly out-of-place visual stunts and increasingly graphic scenes of gore.

These inconsistencies are all the more jarring in the midst of what starts out as a terrifically sophisticated movie, in which Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane (transformed from a teacher to a New York City constable) with a generous dose of self-mocking humor. When Crane is commanded by his boss (played by Christopher Lee, in a nod to "Dracula" and like-minded films that were Burton's inspiration) to travel to the small town of Sleepy Hollow to investigate some mysterious deaths by decapitation, he is at first eager to try out his newfangled crime-solving equipment. (His kit includes a hilariously improbable pair of Swiss Army-like eyeglasses.) Once there, however, our hero emerges as a rather prissy excuse for a detective, squealing at spiders and fainting at the drop of a head.

Depp's amusingly counterintuitive performance -- in which his Goth persona turns out to conceal a timorous prig -- is well supported by Christina Ricci as the beautiful Katrina Van Tassel, Michael Gambon as her wealthy father and Miranda Richardson, who plays Lady Van Tassel with patrician chilliness.

It's probably appropriate that Andrew Kevin Walker ("Seven," "Fight Club") has been enlisted to adapt a story that is, after all, about a serial killer on the loose. But "Sleepy Hollow" benefits greatly from the uncredited contribution of playwright Tom Stoppard, whose humor and fluency no doubt helped make the movie more than just a vector for thrills and chills.

If Burton shows good taste in hiring Stoppard, that judgment extends to "Sleepy Hollow's" distinctive look, which exploits fog, forests and Dutch Colonial architecture to their full Gothic potential. ("Sleepy Hollow" was filmed entirely in England, which stands in nicely for upstate New York.) Helped greatly by Colleen Atwood, whose muted palette tones down her lusciously extravagant costumes, Burton has created a world worthy of the vintage English horror films he worships, in which mysteries multiply as if in a blood-red dream. Had he stayed true to this vision, or maybe hewed closer to the original book, "Sleepy Hollow" might have been more than an uneven, if lively, diversion.

`Sleepy Hollow'

Starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson

Directed by Tim Burton

Rated R (graphic horror violence and gore, and for a scene of sexuality)

Running time: 105 minutes

Released by Paramount Pictures

Sun score: **1/2

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