LIKE THE headless rider that figures so prominently in the movie, Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" seems to be missing something.

Everything seems to be there, including wonderful sets, great cinematography and all manner of special effects, including the regular and extremely involuntary removal of human heads. But "Sleepy Hollow" is something I would never have imagined from Burton: a tentative horror flick.

You'd think Burton, the director of "Batman," "Edward Scissorhands" and the wonderful "Tim Burton's `The Night Before Christmas,' " would be perfect for this project.

But at no point does the filmmaker pause to let us know how spooky things can really get. There is something missing from the beginning, a sort of manic electricity that would have charged those surface atmospherics. There is no sense of permeating danger. I remember infinitely more clamminess in the gut when I first saw Walt Disney's "The Headless Horseman."

Burton has no compunction about a little gore, however. Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a whiz constable sent into 18th-century Sleepy Hollow to investigate a string of ghastly murders, loves to poke and prod the meaty sockets of the headless bodies before him. At one point, he even cuts into an exhumed body to learn the corpse was pregnant.

But beyond these gross-out moments, Burton seems at a loss for attitude. He doesn't seem sure whether to scare us or make us laugh. He opts for both and falls right off his horse.

When Ichabod arrives in Sleepy Hollow, he's surrounded by an unnerving circle of town leaders, including the rich Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon) and Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson), who claim the deaths have been caused by a spectral, horse-riding killer.

Ichabod refuses to believe these fanciful stories until he's witness to another gruesome killing. After that, he's more than ready to believe local legend: that the marauding horseman is a former Hessian soldier, who lost his head and will keep killing until -- you know.

Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), daughter of Sleepy Hollow's most affluent family, bewitches Ichabod. At least, so he says. But there's very little evidence of romantic magic between them. And the rivalry for Katrina's heart that takes place between Ichabod and Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien) doesn't set anyone's pulse racing. No wonder they call this place Sleepy Hollow.

Although Depp is enjoyable to watch at most times, he's part of the problem here. His splendidly dressed, handsome Ichabod has more to do with the pages of GQ than Washington Irving's superstitious goofball. And his over-the-top efforts -- he plays Ichabod as a mediocre cross between Buster Keaton and Tim Curry -- are not as funny as he and Burton would like to believe. I wondered why he was so perpetually wound up, and I feared his cheekbones might tear through his flesh for all the flexing. These should not have been my primary thoughts while watching a gothic horror movie.

SLEEPY HOLLOW (R, 105 minutes) -- Contains major head slicing. Area theaters.