I took a brief look at an e-text of the original "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving (as any remaining memory I had of the legend itself came from the Disney movie and only featured the headless horseman riding about), and I must say I liked what the writers were able to sculpt out of the original story. They had to, because the original might have been a fun read but was no movie material. Instead, it is to their credit that we get interesting and convincing characters from colonial times who seem to have leapt right out of the real story from Irving, when in fact most of them were newly created. Now I am not so worried for those who might have their plot spoiled for them because they have read the book. Much better than that "Psycho" remake fiasco, eh?
The town of Sleepy Hollow is but one out of many of the film's visual triumphs. Perpetually shrouded in fog and gloom, the town seems steeped in misery even in daytime. Even the haystacks look morose. The film begins with awkward shots and a slackening pace but eventually picks up its rythmn. One defect of the plot was that we kept going in this rondeau rhythmn: narrative, we see horseman galloping and wielding his knife, someone gets killed; narrative, horseman, murder; narrative, horseman, murder. This gets repetitive and pretty much every time the sun sets we know what is going to happen. We also saw too many heads actually getting chopped off. If we hadn't gotten used it so quickly, perhaps it would have a greater effect on us. That, however, doesn't distract from the horror when it does happen. The film is a triumph of black and white and shades of grey (only to be disrupted by the end by that horrible sunlight) and mesmerizing visual images and effects. Burton never once let up on the fog, and that was a good choice. Particularly enchanting are Ichabod's memory scenes which are beautiful yet horrifying to look at. The red church doors awash in a sea of white were wonderful. Johnny Depp plays a wonderfully amusing Ichabod Crane; and while Christina Ricci was decent in her role, I still maintain that she was miscast because she looks too much like a child. Katrina of Irving's story was young, but not that young. A stand out is that young assistant Ichabod employs. The rest of the characters were just as superbly cast.
Not only was the film a wonderfully macabre piece, it was a glimpse into states of affairs when an earlier turn of century was about to arrive. It was a treat surveying the costumes, the settings, their "autopsy bay" and Ichabod's peculiar tools. Even more so, the film made a solid social commentary on the dark side of the pioneering spirit (manifested in the horrors on the killing fields and the head family's usurption of property which lead to the tragedy itself), and on ancient and uncivilized practices that religion or social tradition dictates. Things that most of us in modern America have forgotten ever existed before.
Picture an Edward Gorey cartoon. Ever seen one of those? They usually feature someone, often a child, dying or in some state of mortality. There's no story to it. It's just death, and even though it is a simple cartoon, it conjures up a sense of dread in you. That is comparable to watching "Sleepy Hollow." It's a gorgeously illustrated children's book that creeps the heck out of childrens and adults alike.
Rating: B+ (First viewing, 11/24/99)
* Was that Martin Landau prancing through cornfields in the beginning of the movie? Kind of reminded me of that other movie he was in last summer, where the two main characters also ran through cornfields.
* And here we have Christopher Walken with his 15th reprisal of the role of the freaky villain.
* There is a nice variation on an oft-seen movie cliche. Tired of seeing action movies where hero and villain are at each other's throats on top of a moving bus/car/train/sailbot/spaceship?