When a film stars Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, is directed by Tim Burton from a script by Andrew Kevin Walker, contains stuntwork by Ray Park, music by Danny Elfman, and imparts the tale of a headless guy who runs around decapitating people in late eighteenth-century New York, my expectations are going to be pretty high. The long-anticipated, anxiously-awaited Sleepy Hollow -- a film that, in a sense, was the Phantom Menace for horror fans -- did not live up to its promise, nor did it fulfill my expectations. It surpassed them entirely.
Sleepy Hollow is a horror masterpiece, a gorgeous, frightening, compelling movie that further proves Tim Burton to be one of the greatest directors in modern film history. In his first straightforward horror film, Burton's heightened, gothic style is more evocative of the German expressionist horror films of the 1910s and 1920s than any technique commonly seen today -- Sleepy Hollow would have been just as effective as a silent movie. The film is unapologetically beautiful, theatrical and dark, eschewing realism for freakish visual grandeur. Unlike sci-fi, horror films have rarely had the budget and means to express this kind of fantastic vision. Sleepy Hollow is an exciting film purely in the sense that it opens possibilities of things to come.
It also has one of the best ensemble casts in years. Foremost is Johnny Depp as the inquisitive yet squeamish Ichabod Crane, a detective called away from New York City to investigate a series of brutal decapitations. Depp is charming and compelling as Crane, although half of the appeal stems from seeing this striking actor in eighteenth-century clothing. The entire film plays like a Merchant-Ivory flick from hell, and Christina Ricci in flowing white gowns and a blond wig only adds to the sensibility.
Ricci is excellent as Crane's witchcraft-inclined love Katrina van Tassel, but the true star of the film is the Headless Horseman himself, who is played in precapitated form by the freaky Christopher Walken and in headless state by the incredible Ray ("Darth Maul") Park. Whether riding through moonlight forests with a blood-stained sword in hand or emerging from a giant tree stuffed with the heads of his victims, the Headless Horseman is a terrific, completely over-the-top horror villain. Burton and scriptwriter Walker (Seven) wisely added humor into the bloody mix, and never is this so true when the Horseman takes his victims. While this act is startling if not terrifying, there is something grossly comedic about those wigged, severed heads flying through the air. Think 1776 meets The Evil Dead and you get the idea.
Rounding out the cast are Casper van Dien as Brom von Brunt, Miranda Richardson as Lady van Tassel, and Marc Pickering, who is terrific in his debut as Young Masbeth. In an inspired touch, the film also boasts guest appearances by horror vets Christopher Lee and Michael Gough, and the Hammer sensibility carries over into one of Sleepy Hollow's most outstanding attributes: the gore. As the tone of the movie veers from horror to drama to dark comedy to romance, one things stays the same -- it's really, really gross. Yet somehow the violence never feels excessive, and it often is beautifully, languorously filmed. Sleepy Hollow is a dark, brutal, funny film that is also the most visually thrilling of the year.
DROOL FACTOR: Who can resist a film in which so many guys give head? Pale, gorgeous, and beautifully attired, Johnny Depp truly puts the "bod" in Ichabod Crane. An actor with a long list of yummy genre credits (see The 11 Hottest Guys in Sci-Fi and Horror, issue one), Johnny always looks especially fine in Tim Burton flicks, and Sleepy Hollow is no exception. Runner-up: the immensely appealing Casper van Dien as Brom von Brunt.
GROSS-OUT FACTOR: The whole headless horseman thing oughta clue you in here. Sleepy Hollow is by far the goriest film Tim Burton ever made; it's also one of the most beautiful and riveting. Props to Kevin Yagher for first-class special FX.
STRONG CHICK FACTOR: Tim Burton flicks always have terrific female characters -- hell, this is the man that made even Winona Ryder seem appealing. The ever-cool Christina Ricci is wonderful as Katrina van Tassel, and Miranda Richardson is scary and brilliant as her wayward stepmother. And then there is The Crone, who simply rules.