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Making a Spectacle of Himself: Johnny Depp takes a look at terror in 'Sleepy Hollow.'

Running on Empty

'Sleepy Hollow' missing more than its head

By Nicole McEwan

IT'S NO SECRET that Tim Burton is a visionary director. From the comic psychedelia of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, through the gothic fairy-tale excess of Edward Scissorhands, Burton has proven his talent for creating outlandish fantasy worlds awash in his own particular brand of black humor. But if his forte is his endless visual ingenuity, it is also his greatest weakness. A master of macabre flourishes, whimsical contraptions and mysterious landscapes, Burton has always struggled with the most rudimentary task of filmmaking: storytelling. Though he leaves his indelible mark on every frame, Burton's characters too often lack dimension; his plots are slaves to pictorial extravagance, and his players are mere pawns in the puppet theater that is Tim Burton's mind. Unfortunately, Sleepy Hollow may be his most fascinating miscalculation yet, a celebration of form and style over substance that disappoints all the more because the potential for greatness is so abundantly clear.

Loosely based on Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the film delivers us to 1799, where a small New England town is being victimized by a vengeful ghost. The Headless Horseman is the specter of a murderous Hessian soldier killed during the Revolutionary War. Decapitated himself, the creature roams the North Woods lopping off heads like a colonial Terminator. Horror guru Christopher Lee plays the New York City official who sends Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) to Sleepy Hollow. A bumbling detective prone to fainting spells, Crane hopes to use science to help solve the murders.

It's the kind of story that seems tailor-made for Burton's theatrics. But the first clue that we're in for a tad-too-campy ride is in the casting of Christopher Walken, himself a cartoon of sorts. With blackened fangs, ice-blue contacts and haglike hair, Walken plays a version of a role he's been sucking bone-dry for years: the madman. Curiously, Burton chose the lesser role of Katrina Van Tassel for adventurous casting. A de-bitched, bleached-out Christina Ricci plays Katrina with a wide-eyed piety that goes down sweet, her famous décolletage reined in tighter than her customary temperament. Wooed by many, she sets her sights on gangly Ichabod--whom Depp plays broad, with a Buster Keaton-like flair.

Still, why talk acting and plot when the true star of Sleepy Hollow is its production design. Cinematography, costumes and set design hog the spotlight here--and the results are frequently wondrous. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki uses high-contrast lighting to achieve a landscape of chilly silhouettes. Occasional flashes of crimson or blue only accentuate the bleak terrain, the thin terror heightened by Danny Elfman's grandiose score. Yet for all its visual glory, the film's murders are perfunctory, the romance chaste, the treachery too arch, and the hero's insecurity too patly explained. Heads roll like croquet balls but the victims are strangers to us--an assemblage of wigged blowhards and sketchy innocents. Perhaps Burton's films are strictly for kids--only they will be frightened by Sleepy Hollow's energetic machinations. There's a lot of blood flowing in Tim Burton's latest work of art, but sadly, there's nary a drop of passion.

Sleepy Hollow (R; 104 min.), directed by Tim Burton, written by Andrew Kevin Walker, based on the story by Washington Irving, photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki and starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci and Miranda Richardson, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the November 17-24, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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