Gorgeously constructed and genuinely frightening, Sleepy Hollow is a consummate match of director and material. Washington Irving's tale allows Tim Burton to work his visual pyrotechnics within the framework of a solid dramatic narrative, a situation which always yields this inventive genius's best work. (A look back at Mars Attacks or Batman Returns shows how his optic opulence can sink beneath a messy story.) While it lacks the original brilliance of Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow is readily enjoyed as a feast for the eyes.
Sleepy Hollow's end-of-the-century release is well-timed, as Andrew Kevin Walker and Kevin Yagher's loose adaptation of the Irving tale is set in 1799. In his third starring role for Burton, Johnny Depp has the Ichabod Crane role. Sleepy Hollow is modeled on the Hammer films of the '50s and '60s, so it's fitting that Hammer vet Christopher Lee has a cameo as the New York City burgomaster who sends Crane, a constable in this version instead of a teacher, to an isolated Dutch farming community two days' journey north of the city which has experienced three deaths in a fortnight-all beheadings. The villagers attribute the murders to the ghost of the Hessian Horseman, a German mercenary with a lethal sword who was in the hire of the English during the Revolutionary War.
Sleepy Hollow's astonishing visual design is established by Crane's arrival at the hugely forbidding house of wealthy Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), set in a creepy landscape of craggy trees complete with a pumpkin-topped scarecrow which could have been taken right from The Nightmare Before Christmas (the film was mostly shot on English soundstages). Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (A Little Princess) uses a monochromatic palette of blues, blacks and grays, which makes any use of color, such as blood red, effectively jarring. The skeptical rationalist Crane carries a bag of unorthodox optical investigative instruments of his own design, but ultimately trades sense and reason for skittish and scared behavior as he begins to believe that the Headless Horseman might just be for real. (He even gets into bed and pulls the covers up over his head after one fright.)
At the heart of the mystery lies a bit of the supernatural and a heap of conspiracy and old-fashioned greed. Sleepy Hollow is the kind of village where everybody's hiding a secret, and Crane's frustrating investigatory encounters with the town's bewigged elders, led by reverend Jeffrey Jones, provide a dose of comic relief to this dark and grisly tale. (The film's murders are gory enough to clearly warrant an 'R' rating.) The only 'man' brave enough to journey into the Western Woods to investigate with Crane is Young Masbeth (Marc Pickering), whose father was one of the Horseman's victims. The duo make a fitting pair, as Burton's protagonists have often been children or childlike outsiders, battling, like Crane and Young Masbeth, the world's horrors, whether imaginary or real. Along those lines, Crane suffers from nightmares about his mother (Lisa Marie), a voluptuous goddess who was killed by his religious-tyrant father when Crane was a boy.
Production designer Rich Heinrichs, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and editor Chris Lebenzon are all Burton veterans, and their affinity for the director's style shows in every fiber of their amazing work here. Composer Danny Elfman is, of course, also synonymous with Burton, and his booming score suits the gothic material. As usual, Depp is brilliant, giving a slightly winking, over-the-top performance befitting the film's Hammer roots. (The actor was apparently inspired by his friend, the late Roddy McDowall.) Christina Ricci is equally fine as Baltus' daughter Katrina Van Tassel, a provocative, otherworldly beauty who understandably bewitches Crane, and Miranda Richardson is wonderfully wicked as Katrina's stepmother, who married Baltus after nursing his late first wife. And who better to play the Hessian (later Headless) Horseman than wild-eyed Christopher Walken, whose spooky death in the Western Woods, presented in flashback, is somewhat reminiscent of Kubrick's The Shining. (He's done in thanks to two mysterious little girls and a snapping twig.) Ed Wood fans should look closely at the film's opening: The first victim to lose his head is an uncredited Martin Landau.