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SLEEPY HOLLOW(director: Tim Burton; screenwriters: Andrew Kevin Walker/Kevin Yagher/based on the short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving; cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki; editor: Chris Lebenzon; cast: Johnny Depp (Ichabod Crane), Christina Ricci (Katrina Van Tassel), Miranda Richardson (Lady Van Tassel/Crone), Michael Gambon (Baltus Van Tassel), Casper Van Dien (Brom Van Brunt ), Jeffrey Jones (Reverend Steenwyck), Christopher Walken (Headless Horseman), Richard Griffiths (Magistrate Philips), Christopher Lee (NYC Judge ), Marc Pickering (Young Masbeth), Michael Gough (Notary Hardenbrook); Runtime: 111; Paramount Pictures; 1999)
“A “Hollow-wood” production that couldn’t be more hollow or Hollywoodish.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A “Hollow-wood” production that couldn’t be more hollow or Hollywoodish. It presents scenes of thick fog, horrid decapitations, and framed arty shots, making it a visually pleasing movie. But the filmmaker completely ruins Washington Irving’s great short story by taking unwanted liberties. It now becomes a story about a serial killer and loses its author’s intention to be a parable. So you can forget the book as a source, obviously Tim Burton did; that is, if he ever read it. Here the filmmaker throws away any imagination derived from the once popular short story. In the 1950s, it was part of the curriculum of many English high school literature courses.

The film is not helped by a cast (I might add a rather talented cast of British and Americans) that are sleepwalking through their parts. The two stars have inane and underwritten roles and seem to be acting as if they have no idea of what they are saying or doing, but seem to enjoy overacting for the camera, while showing no chemistry together. And without Depp and Ricci being credible, the film had little chance of succeeding. It was therefore reduced to being just a special effect film.

It’s a popcorn movie (which the theater owners will be largely appreciative of) and the targeted audience of teens, in all probability, will be reacting with bemused glee or mock horror to all the packets of ketchup pouring out as a substitute for blood during the Headless Horseman’s romp through the Sleepy Hollow of 1799.

If anything good can be said, it would be that it brings back to the public’s attention the forgotten writer Washington Irving. He is someone who knew how to craft a ghost story back in the turn-of-the-19th-century and is still very readable. It’s just too bad that a good movie couldn’t result from such an accessible work.

It’s best to forget about this movie being connected with the novel, the only thing that seems to jive is the time period, the location, and the character called Ichabod Crane (Depp). But this time Crane is not a schoolteacher but a constable, leaving NYC on orders from his superiors to hunt down a serial killer by using his innovative Sherlock Holmes-like logical detection methods — which are not appreciated by the local police authorities in NYC.

Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the wealthy daughter of the local farmer, will be Crane’s love interest, though she already has a suitor in the brave but jealous Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien).

In the book, the Headless Horseman is imaginary. It is Brom who dresses up as the one to frighten the naive Ichabod away from his rich and attractive woman, and it is the only way the story can make sense. In the movie the Horseman is real and the story becomes a vulgar mystery with an inept attempt to bring in an air of magical mystery; it almost completely ignores the romantic rivalry between the two suitors, which was at the heart of Irving’s story.

The town fathers are: Reverend Steenwyck (Jones), Magistrate Philipse (Griffiths), Notary Hardenbrook (Gough), and include the now wealthiest resident of Sleepy Hollow, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), the father of Katrina, married to her stepmother, Lady Van Tassel (Miranda). All the town fathers believe the previous 5 murders to be the work of a legendary Headless Horseman who haunts the area, but the skeptical Crane scoffs at this. It is only after he sees for himself that this is true that he decides there is a motive behind these serial murders, that they are not random acts of violence.

Tim Burton (“Edward Scissorhands“/” Ed Wood“/”Mars Attacks!“/”Batman“) has succeeded in robbing the story of anything but a cursory look at Irving’s vision. How a film could go so far afield is not unusual for Hollywood, but in this case the film has gone too far afield from the story to even claim it is based on the book. Burton has made a preposterous story about a Headless Horseman who lives inside a tree trunk and is controlled by a twisted person who uses him to commit murders that will benefit their cause.

I would suggest reading the short story (about 40-pages) before or after seeing the film, and then see what you think of the film. I read the book after the film and am grateful that it called Washington Irving to my attention, again. Otherwise, I can’t say enough bad things about the film’s crass aim to take away the imagination of the story and replace it with not one shred of what Irving was after in his ghost story about romantic jealousy.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”