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Cinema: Tim Burton’s Tricky Treat

4 minute read
Richard Corliss

For nearly 200 years the tale has kept children awake and atremble–or lulled them to sleep with Washington Irving’s drolly orotund style. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is still a bedtime staple in tonier households, and with its Headless Horseman hurling a grimacing pumpkin at the head of Ichabod Crane, the story helped create the American giddying-up of Halloween as a funny fright night. But like so many old fables, Sleepy Hollow is chiefly remembered in its Disney version. That 1958 cartoon short, a genial mix of comedy and anxiety, took its tone from the voice of its narrator: Bing Crosby. A lulling, a chuckle, then a little scare. Buh-buh-buh-boo!

Tim Burton will not let you go so easy into that dark night. The director wants to turn this fairy tale into a full-blooded ghost story–and a total Tim Burton experience. So for this end-of-the-century parable (it’s set in 1799), he imports the bats from Batman, the jack-o’-lantern from Nightmare Before Christmas and, as Ichabod Crane, Johnny Depp from Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Instead of the bright Halloween hues of the Disney version, Burton gives his film a swankly, dankly desaturated color scheme. And just to make sure he doesn’t go soft, he hires Andrew Kevin Walker, author of the sleazorific Se7en and 8mm, to write the screenplay. No one will fall asleep in this Sleepy Hollow. It revs up the gore.

Is there a Headless Horseman? Then he’d better cut off some heads–heads that, when detached by the whoosh of the Horseman’s blade, go spinning, rolling, bobbing as if each were a top, a bowling ball, a Halloween apple on its way from Hollow to hell. (The terminally cool Tussaud effects are by Kevin Yagher, who also worked on the script.) Irving’s Horseman, a long-dead Hessian mercenary, was most likely a story to scare away intruders and, when Ichabod sees him, a human prankster toying with the gullible schoolteacher. Here, though, the creature must be realer than a nightmare–a galloping plague to purge Sleepy Hollow. He is embodied, occasionally, by Christopher Walken, who could terrify small children just by singing I’m a Little Teapot. In full Horseman drag, with his spiky teeth and Stygian melancholy, Walken is an R rating waiting to happen.

Crane’s name was his frame: a gangly galoot and, when he fell for buxom Katrina Van Tassel, an easy prey for the burly lads of Sleepy Hollow. In Burton’s revision and Depp’s incarnation, Crane is a Manhattan constable sent upriver to solve a murder; predating Poe’s Auguste Dupin by several decades, he is America’s first detective. He is also a troubled soul, carrying literal scars from childhood and memories that roil his sleep. So handsome, so haunted, he proves irresistible to this Katrina (Christina Ricci). Yet Depp bumbles and stumbles, just like the old Ichabod; he is the hero and the comic relief in one tightly wound package. Doesn’t always work, but we’ve been admiring this actor’s bravado and forgiving his excesses for ages. Why stop now? Besides, he ultimately makes Ichabod a truly obsessive romantic hero: Byron by Ahab.

The story is still set just north of New York City (and visually quotes the Hudson River School of painters), but it was filmed in a studio near London and cast mostly with British actors. At first the accents are jarring; viewers will stop to wonder just when Americans finally learned to speak American. But the presence of Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson and especially Christopher Lee will tip you to Burton’s intent. He is making not an American folktale but a British horror movie–a tribute to the Hammer studio of the late ’50s and later, to its Dracula and Frankenstein remakes, to the decorum punctuated by gore, the stake driven into the capacious bosom.

Funny thing is, those movies weren’t very good. This one is: Burton’s richest, prettiest, weirdest since Batman Returns. The simple story bends to his twists, freeing him for an exercise in high style. Sleepy Hollow may be late for Halloween, but this trick is a real treat.

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