"Sleepy Hollow" is mucky, melancholic and beautifully crafted, yet when it comes to meaning, Tim Burton's film is as empty as the jack-o'-lanterns that leer from the windowsills of the legendary Hudson Valley hamlet. In Burton's hands, Washington Irving's spooky classic is reincarnated as an overripe, grisly Goth cartoon.
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker ("Seven"), the repetitive, increasingly predictable horror fantasy is haunted by the ghosts of ideas never fully realized. And in a desperate effort to beef up the slight story, Walker provides the protagonist with horrific nightmares about the torture and murder of his mother (Lisa Marie), a witch.
While Irving's tale seduces its audience with mystery and imagination, Burton's fantasy relies on opulence and mayhem. In this, it recalls "Bram Stoker's Dracula," directed by Francis Ford Coppola (also one of this film's executive producers). Coppola's film, however, was driven by romantic passion as well as Dracula's taste for blood lust. Although "Sleepy's" bumbling hero, Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), falls for the town beauty, Katrina Van Tassel (angelic, blonded Christina Ricci), the picture is driven by blood lust, not love.
The year is 1799 and Ichabod, a geeky schoolmaster in Irving's yarn, has been transformed into a wimpish New York constable. As a man of science and reason, Ichabod insists upon applying both to his work for the police department. His hidebound superior (Christopher Lee) considers the foppish young Sherlock a nuisance and to get him out of their wigs for a couple of days, they send him to Sleepy Hollow to look into a rash of decapitations.
The muddy, 18th-century village (painstakingly re-created in England) is nestled between dark woods and a moldering graveyard. The sun, as the ghostly complexions of the villagers attest, is a stranger here and gloom prevails. Scarecrows with pumpkin heads guard the fields, and Ichabod, timid by nature, is shaken by the ominous atmosphere.
Nonetheless, Ichabod pooh-poohs the notion of a supernatural explanation for the murders and begins his investigation. He thinks he's getting somewhere with his rational methods until he comes face to face, er, whatever, with the Horseman, who whacks off a companion's noggin, spears it with his sword and gallops off into the night.
So much for the rational man and the promise of a new millennium.
It isn't so easy to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. Surely, most of the villagers have no place to hang a tricorn hat by the time the skull-challenged Horseman has completed his collection.
Halfway through the film, the thrills of decapitation are all but exhausted when the filmmakers hit upon a solution: Terrorize and murder a 3-year-old.
Burton, who plays much of the violence for laughs, seems to think he's made a darker-than-dark comedy, and Depp, beautiful in his black frock coat with his tousled hair, clearly sees Ichabod as a comical figure. But the joke's on the audience.
Sleepy Hollow (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for graphic violence and a sex scene.
CAPTION: Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane and Christina Ricci as his love interest in Tim Burton's gory take on the classic tale.
CAPTION: Johnny Depp tries to keep his head on straight in Tim Burton's remake of "Sleepy Hollow."