If you saw the theatrical trailers for Sleepy Hollow, chances are you thought that this film re-imagined the Washington Irving short story as a sort of Sherlock Holmes murder mystery. While this is true in part, it's not the whole picture; What director Tim Burton has done is re-imagined the tale as a 1960's gothic horror movie.
Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) has been transformed into a too-progressive New York City constable (circa 1799) who is sent -mainly to get him out of his superiors' hair - to investigate some gruesome decapitation murders in the isolated village of Sleepy Hollow. The ultra-rational Crane pish-tushes the locals' tales of the marauding Headless Horseman, until he, too, encounters the specter one night; then he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy involving witchcraft, fornication, and all the things that made life worth living in the late eighteenth century.
Some directors' attempts at homage end up being merely trite or annoying, at worst showcasing only the director's lack of originality. One thing Burton cannot be faulted for, however, is that lack. The savvy genre buff can watch Sleepy Hollow and say to himself, "that looks just like Hammer", or "that angle's straight out the Poe movies", or "Hey! Burton's seen the same Bava films I have!", yet the movie retains its own identity, a creature definitely of that 60's world, but still maintaining the sardonic tilt of the 90s. Helping Burton is a terrific cast, aside from regulars Johnny Depp and Jeffrey Jones: Martin Landau, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Ian McDiarmid... this influx of fine, steady English actors only aids the Hammer Films vibe, enriching the experience.
This is a good old-fashioned horror movie made with 21st century technology, and, I'm happy to say, made well. There are a couple of Large Marge moments - Burtonophiles will know what I mean - just in case you forgot who was directing. It amuses me to think what the reaction would be if Charles Babbage - who labored so many fruitless years (about the time of this movie) attempting to create a computer - had known that the descendants of his imagined difference engine would be used to one day depict the realistic decapitations of innocent people. Not quite what UNIVAC's creators had in mind, either, I imagine.
Taking the cue from the aforementioned Hammer Films, the color palette of Sleepy Hollow is largely monochromatic, which causes brighter colors, such as the sumptuous costuming, the brushed orange autumnal lighting or the frequent splash -literally- of red to stand out. This transfer is pristine, preserving every bit of the work Burton and his artisans labored upon - true blacks, shadow detail, nary a speck of dust or grain. This is the way movies should look. The sound is equally marvelous, with Danny Elfman's score supporting the onscreen imagery in a masterful fashion, and the sound effects.... well, give a listen to the covered bridge battle at 57:17, and try not to look up at your ceiling.
There are two featurettes; one, "Behind the Legend" is a very good making-of featurette, and a second offers press junket interviews with the majors, supported with footage from the film. If you have not yet seen Sleepy Hollow, it is definitely suggested you avoid these two until after seeing the movie; a lot is given away. There is a Photo Gallery, Biographies for six of the actors, and two versions of the movie's trailers.
The commentary track by Burton is a bit disappointing. On the one hand, every time I've seen the man interviewed, he has seemed almost incoherent. It's not that Burton is, I believe him simply to be a man whose brain fires off so many ideas at once, you can actually feel them fighting to get out of his mouth - he seems to be constantly interrupting himself (There's a fine example of this in the Interview section) - but here he's fairly lucid. Then there is the other hand: in the first five minutes, Burton invokes the name of Hammer Films and the old Outer Limits program, but then rarely returns to this examination of his roots. He is effusive in his praise for the actors and his crew, which is quite nice of him - but I really wanted to be in that crowded, lightning-filled brain, getting a better idea of how pictures like this are born.
Dr. Freex, 5/26/00