Sleepy Hollow

Directed by Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Casper Van Dien, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Christopher Walken.
MPAA Rating: R for graphic horror violence and gore, and for a scene of sexuality.

Review by Matt Heffernan
November 20, 1999

1999 has been an interesting year for the horror genre. The Sixth Sense has killed at the box office, and The Blair Witch Project changed all the rules. Other films, such as The Haunting and The House on Haunted Hill, went overboard into digital effects that were totally ineffective. But, Sleepy Hollow is the first horror film this year from a major director. Tim Burton has always made creepy films, but he has never gone into full-blown horror. I can tell that he's been waiting to do this for a long time.

Forget most of what you know about Washington Irving's classic story: The Legend of Sleep Hollow. Only the character names remain, and a new legend is created. Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is now a constable for the New York Police Department in 1799. He is still pale and aloof, but he is much better looking. His dedication to forensics gets him an assignment in the old Dutch town of Sleepy Hollow, which is a two-day ride up the Hudson River. A string of murders has been blamed on a headless horseman, the ghost of a maniacal Hessian mercenary (Christopher Walken) who was killed there during the Revolutionary War. Of course, Ichabod is a man of science, and is intent on finding a human perpetrator.

Well, reason goes right out the door when he witnesses another murder by the horseman. Instead of just being scared out of town, he continues his investigation. The original love triangle is still present, with Ichabod smitten by Katrina (Christina Ricci), the daughter of Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), a wealthy farmer. She is being courted by Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien), a local tough guy, but this is not the focus of the film. Ichabod tries to make sense of the murders, which seem to relate to an alleged conspiracy in the town.

The most important thing about Burton's films is the visual aspect. He is less concerned about exploring human issues than essentially taking over 100,000 photographs, and showing them at a rate of 24 per second. He is very old-fashioned when it comes to making sure that each shot is perfectly composed, but in a story like this, it is a very beneficial approach. There is certainly enough blood to make you realize that you are watching a modern film. In fact, there is a little too much, and it conflicts with the style of the film. The beheadings look very realistic, and must have been done digitally, but the graphics aren't shoved in your face, saying "look how much money I spent on special effects!" Instead, they are well integrated, and actually add to the horror.

What helps elevate Sleepy Hollow from just being a gothic picture show is the wonderful performance by Depp, who has always delivered for Burton. He is so strong, that I didn't even care about Van Dien's presense, which was thankfully brief. Ricci is a perfect leading lady for Burton, and it's surprising that it's taken this long for her to work with him. Of course, she was a little girl not too long ago, and Burton was doing quite well with Winona Ryder. And, Depp is nearly twice as old as Ricci, but the age difference doesn't interfere with this film.

This is not Burton's best film, but his first horror entry shows promise. If he would concentrate less on rolling heads and more on suspense, he could make a great horror film. I still recommend this highly to fans of Burton, but if you want a more faithful telling of Irving's story, watch Disney's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Here's some merchandise for sale at
Sleepy Hollow (1999) -- VHS
Sleepy Hollow (1999) -- DVD
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a story by Washington Irving -- Hardcover
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a story by Washington Irving -- Paperback
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a story by Washington Irving -- Audio Cassette (reader unknown)
The Art of Sleepy Hollow, introduction by Tim Burton -- Hardcover
Sleepy Hollow, a screenplay novelization by Peter Lerangis -- Paperback
Sleepy Hollow: Music from the Motion Picture -- Compact Disc Home
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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan