The classic “Tim Burton trio,” consisting of the director himself, Johnny Depp, and musical composer Danny Elfman team up for a revisionist retelling of Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It is the year 1799. Instead of a school master Ichabod Crane, (a whimsy-laden Johnny Depp), is a police constable, sent from New York to the nearby town of Sleepy Hollow as a detective to investigate a series of decapitation murders. Crane’s firm belief in reason is challenged not only by the logic-defying murders and bodies piling up around him but by all of the townspeople. Some push the Holy Bible his way and others offer a book of protective spells.
Sleepy Hollow is very plot-driven in comparison with much of Tim Burton’s work. Ichabod Crane is the only character escaping decapitation long enough to be somewhat rounded. Here Johnny Depp still uses quirkiness to aid his performances instead of serving as his performance. His Crane is logical, slightly effeminate, resourceful, and, for a police investigator, considerably queasy (“I hope you have a strong stomach,” he tells a freshly fatherless teenage boy offering to be his aid after wincing severely at the scene of a crime moments prior). The rest of the cast has their heads lopped off by the Headless Horseman before any development can take place.
It’s a horror whodunit, full of action, plot twists, and empty characters. There’s a forced romance between Ichabod and Katrina (a flimsy Christina Ricci) that feels just as frail as all of the convoluted plot points being straightened out by a villain monologue. Burton admittedly builds great atmosphere. The pervasive mist of Sleepy Hollow is lensed beautifully by the always-excellent Emmanuel Lubezki and Elfman’s score adds that layer of theatricality that all of Burton’s films have. Ichabod Crane is meant to be a fish-out-of-water in this atmospheric town of Sleepy Hollow but unfortunately he feels like a fish out of the film as a whole. Depp’s constant air of whimsy and comedic relief consistently breaks up any darkness Burton is attempting to conjure up.
Thin writing, thin characters, thin plot, high body count, and gore; Sleepy Hollow has all of the trappings of an 80’s slasher flick. Unfortunately due to its awkward tone and failed stabs at the “higher” concept of “reason vs. supernatural” it ultimately fails to be an effective entry in even the “lowest” genre of horror, and, even with its palpable atmosphere, offering neither fun whimsy or chilling horror.