You go into a Tim Burton film wanting to be transported, but Sleepy Hollow is little more than a lavish, art-directed slasher movie, a choppily plotted crowd-pleaser that lacks the seductive, freakazoid alchemy of Burton’s best work. As an embodiment of evil, the Horseman, a gothic Terminator, has style to spare, a certain otherworldly frisson. In the end, though, he doesn’t have much personality. After all, the dude is quite literally faceless.
Set in 1799, ”Sleepy Hollow” feels like a patchwork of old fantasies rather than a spooky, organic imaginative feat of its own. Burton blankets the movie in milky swirls of fog, for that cheesy-cool Hammer-horror effect, and in just about every shot he gives you something to look at: twisted dead trees curling up into the night, a witch poised to strike beneath her musty tangle of hair, a head freshly sliced off and then skewered like a giant martini olive by the Horseman’s sword.
Early on, Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a New York City constable who is pioneering the science of crime ”detection,” arrives in the remote upstate village of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a mysterious series of decapitations. As he kneels in the road before a corpse’s grisly neck, pulling out his chemicals and donning a pair of contraption eyeglasses with a jutting magnification lens, the movie becomes vintage Burton – ghoulish yet whimsical, funny in its disjunctive kookiness.
Burton achieves the stylized atmosphere of a black-and-white film with his muted, waxy colors, so that every drop of blood stands out in bold, gleaming relief. Too much of the story, though, hinges on familiar omens. This is a movie that thinks we’ll be creeped out by pentagrams. Before long, that fog begins to look rather trite; it’s store-bought mystery in place of the real thing.
Is the Headless Horseman a fake, a rigged human scarecrow designed to dispatch people standing in the way of an inheritance? If not, what exactly does the monster want? ”Sleepy Hollow” fails to develop any of this with much intrigue, but then, the wobbly plot might not have mattered if the film’s macabre visual lyricism were more startling.