12 January 2000
Paul Du Noyer

Johnny Depp v The Headless Horseman. Sleepy Hollow

Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Christopher Walken  
The plot: It's New York City, 1799. Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane, an earnest young police constable with a zeal for introducing modern detection methods. His weary superiors put him to the test, sending him to a country village, Sleepy Hollow, where the inhabitants are dropping like decapitated flies victims, it's believed, of a ghostly Headless Horseman. Can Ichabod cut through this superstitious nonsense? Or is there really something supernaturally horrible at work in Sleepy Hollow? The inhabitants prove to be a duplicitous bunch. But the dogged Ichabod will leave no grave unopened in his quest for the truth.

What's right with it? Based upon a classic American folk tale, Sleepy Hollow is every bit the gorgeously Gothic spectacle you would expect of director Tim Burton, who takes the tumbledown town in the post‑Colonial backwoods and creates a symphony in midnight blue. Depp is appealing as the stiff but squeamish Crane, finding his scientific instincts undercut by the inexplicable horrors he meets in this misty netherworld. Equally entertaining are the village elders, played by a gouty cast of British character actors, who splutter and gum in the Hammer Horror style that Burton admires. And Christopher Walken is persuasively nutty as the Headless Horseman (at least in the flashback scenes where he still has a head to act with).

What's wrong with it?
The legend of Sleepy Hollow has fascinated Americans for nearly 200 years, because it is genuinely chilling. The movie, alas, is too self‑consciously modern: prone to camping up the humour, it forgets to ever terrify, and the spirit of Scooby Doo is never far behind. Meanwhile Christina Ricci, as the local lass who plays Crane's love interest, suggests she is an actress better at enigmatic blankness than the florid period melodrama called for here. A minor irritation is the film’s vague approach to 1799 costume and architecture, roaming from English medieval to late 19th century, which seems a slack way of getting to the film's clash of age‑old anxieties and modern rationalism.

Length: 105 minutes

Verdict: In the wake of Blair Witch and The Sixth Sense, it's hard to imagine Sleepy Hollow tapping into anyone's subconscious fears, unless you're pathologically afraid of over‑acting. But if you're prepared for a sumptuous treat for the eyes, with a mildly suspenseful plot to engage the brain, then Sleepy Hollow will not disappoint.