At first, we hear the violent thunder of galloping hooves. Emerging from the midnight woods is a stallion, on top of which sits a tall, ramrod-erect phantom nearly as dark as the shadows around it. The horse rears back, and the nightmare soldier, now towering over everyone in his midst, holds his sword proudly aloft, his cape whipping in the wind. The cloak covers a pair of squared-off shoulders, and set atop that hulking frame is…nothing.
In Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman of Washington Irving’s famous short story comes to life on screen as an ominous marvel of energy, sculpture, and movement, attacking his enemies with brutally decisive force. This night rider with a taste for vengeance—a decapitated spectre that itself lops off heads—might have emerged full-blown from one of Sigmund Freud’s dream studies; he’s a symbolic vision of virility and castration at the same time. The satanic Horseman, however, while a kick to watch (at least, the first few times he shows up), is also an extremely literal image of primal terror. 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.
But Ichabod, who starts out as a likably inquisitive hero, quickly puts aside his crime-solving methodology and becomes enmeshed in other monkey business. He develops a romantic attraction to a local teenager (Christina Ricci, disappearing behind her Pre-Raphaelite ringlets), and there are gaudy chamber-of-horrors flashbacks to Crane’s personal nightmare, the torture and murder of his mother, played by the always ravishing Lisa Marie. It’s a running gag that Ichabod is scared by bugs and other routine intimidations. He’s supposed to be a figure of rationality overwhelmed by the early American spirit world of gods and monsters, but Depp, delivering his lines with a British elocutionary flipness that wouldn’t sound out of place on Saturday Night Live, just acts sillier and more innocuous as the movie goes on.
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. Burton, who was unjustly lambasted for his last movie, the bubble-gum blockbuster spoof Mars Attacks!, will probably have a hit with this one, but that’s because, like The Mummy, it’s a harmlessly retro-quaint horror bash that keeps throwing things at you, right down to the inevitable stagecoach chase, which feels like every high-powered action climax of the last 10 years. Personally, I’d rather see Burton so intoxicated by a movie that he lost his head. B-