PLOT: Timid investigator Ichabod Crane is banished to a small village in upstate New York to look into a series of bizarre, gruesome decapitations. What he finds is that certain members of the community have been targeted by a frightful creature known as "The Headless Horseman," and it won't stop until all of them have been on the chopping block.
REVIEW: I'll be perfectly honest: the first time I saw SLEEPY HOLLOW, I didn't lose my head. Perhaps it was the sheer level of anticipation I felt going in; it was opening day, November 19, 1999. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were both still really cool, and here they were doing an R-rated version of one of my favorite spooky stories. (I was a big fan of "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad"; still am!) When it was over, I had an unshakable feeling of being underwhelmed. Can't quite describe why; perhaps its tone leaned a little too far in the direction of comedy, maybe Depp was a bit too silly, maybe it simply wasn't as flat-out scary as I had hoped it would be. Whatever the reason, I left SLEEPY HOLLOW knowing it didn't live up to my expectations.
Now, I see things differently. It may still not be very scary, but it's a bloody good time, and bloody should be underlined. How many Hollywood movies come along that are this insanely gory? Heads chopped off by the bushel, impalings, bodies being split in two, iron maidens, viscera lashed across the screen with wanton glee: SLEEPY HOLLOW actually doesn't hold back for a minute. And yet, it's all done with a devilish smile on its face; Burton has invited the hopeful fans of BEETLEJUICE and BATMAN to enjoy his latest fantasy world, and is now smacking them upside their heads with unrelenting sights of over-the-top body horror. Hell, he even kills a small child in it! (It's off-screen, but still!)
All of the mayhem comes courtesy, of course, of The Headless Horseman, who comes to life wonderfully thanks to Ray Park and a little bit of movie magic. The legendary apparition is rendered expertly as an ominous figure of destruction, and his every appearance is thoroughly gripping, not to mention nightmarish. We get the added treat of knowing, via flashbacks, that the Headless Horseman once had the head of a razor-toothed Christopher Walken, and if that's not perfection, I don't know what is. If I were a young, burgeoning horror fiend watching this movie - and perhaps that's the intended audience? - then I'd be scared out of my wits by this monster.
What really distinguishes the film, aside from its admirable bloodlust and its cast of distinguished screen vets, is the atmosphere provided by Burton's technical team. The art direction (which rightfully won an Oscar), cinematography and costume design are all stunning, combining to bring us a vivid, gloomy world where skeletal trees loom large, creepy roads are illuminated solely by moonlight and the abodes of the residents seem to have been lifted out of a classic Hammer Horror flick. Aesthetically, the movie is a combination of old-school gothic horror and fantastical storybook. (Or maybe an installment of "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," remember those?) It's just such a pleasure to behold that you forgive it for not being perfect; when a movie has so much ingeniously spooky window dressing, it's best to just appreciate it the view.
BEST TNA: Christina Ricci's bountiful cleavage is on display quite a bit, as is Miranda Richardson's (if you're into something a little classier).
BEST GORE BIT: Where the hell to start? This is a delightfully gory affair, and even if most of the blood-n-guts are over-the-top and cartoonish, it's still quite macabre for a major studio release. Decapitations everywhere, heads spill out of trees, one fellow gets a fence post through the chest. But the best moment just may be watching poor old Casper Van Dien get sliced in two like a loaf of freshly baked bread by the Horseman.
HALLOWEEN DRINKING GAME: Empty a stein of hearty ale into your mouth hole anytime…
- Johnny Depp's Ichabod acts like a frightened little girl
- The Horseman gruesomely offs a villager
- Rick Heinrechs' gorgeous production design makes you pop a horror boner