Friday, June 4, 2010

Sleepy Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, for those that haven't read it, is not necessarily what I would call "ready for the big screen."  In the story, Ichabod Crane, while the most notable character, is definitely not a hero.  He is a superstitious, brown-nosing teacher that competes for the hand of Katrina Van Tassel until he is chased by the Headless Horseman and leaves town.  With Crane gone, Katrina marries the rival for her affections, Brom Van Brunt.  The story implies that Van Brumt dressed as the Horseman to scare Crane away.  So, let's recap: the main character is superstitious (read: foolish) and is outwitted.  It turns out that the Headless Horseman is just a myth, and it was used by a clever man to remove a romantic rival.  Definitely not something that would translate well into a movie, which explains why there hadn't been a film adaptation of the tale since the 1920s.

All it took was Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to remake this story for modern times.  Sleepy Hollow features Depp in the role of Ichabod Crane, a New York City constable, dedicated to the new-fangled methods of scientific investigation (autopsies, finger-printing, etc).  Crane has annoyed his superiors with his know-it-all attitude for some time, so he is dispatched to the far-off town of Sleepy Hollow, which has had a rash of murders.  When he arrives, Crane is informed by the townsfolk that the killer's identity is known; it is the Headless Horseman, the spirit of a bloodthirsty Hessian mercenary, who lost his head in death.  Since the killer was known, Crane declared "Case closed!" and returned to New York City.  No, not really.  Crane, obviously, doesn't believe that a headless creature from beyond the grave is murdering the townsfolk and investigates.  Eventually, he finds out that there IS a headless creature from beyond the grave murdering the townsfolk.  That wasn't a spoiler.  Along the way, Crane develops a fairly innocent romance with Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), daughter to the most powerful man in town.  He also uncovers a conspiracy that ties the victims together and begins to explain why the Horseman is terrorizing the town and how he chooses his victims.

Depp makes some interesting acting choices in this role.  He plays Crane as decidedly effeminate; aside from some little half-yelps he gives from time to time, he is prone to hiding behind women and children when he is frightened.  That's a pretty ballsy choice for a Hollywood lead.  While this isn't one of Depp's typical weirdo roles, he comes off as intelligent and it's fun to see him squirm when he sees blood.  It's not his deepest role, but he is quirky and shows development as the film progresses (plus, Depp is awesome).  As Katrina, Christina Ricci attempts to make her character seem like an innocent babe.  In the attempt, Ricci goes past "innocent" and lands somewhere in the range of "infantile" or "simple-minded."  This wouldn't be bad, but she shows almost no emotional range --- her voice doesn't change whether she is happy or upset with Ichabod.  Ricci's uncharacteristic performance doesn't hurt the overall film, but it is kind of annoying.  She went from rags to riches and she doesn't have even a little bitterness or sarcasm? 

The other actors turn in solid supporting performances.  Casper Van Dien plays Brom, and (like in the story) he poses as the Horseman to scare Ichabod.  Van Dien is not a very talented actor, but he lends some credibility to the only real action scene in the film, so I guess that was decent casting.  Christopher Lee and Martin Landau make brief cameos (Landau was uncredited in his role) that don't add much, but cameos are really only there for the fans and are effective in that regard.  Jeffrey Jones, Richard Giffiths, Michael Gambon, and Michael Gough all do decently with their supporting roles as town elders and co-conspirators.  As for the supporting ladies, Lisa Marie does what you might expect from her, providing little (or, in this case, no) dialogue and ample cleavage.  Miranda Richardson has a good time cackling toward the end and does a pretty good job of portraying crazy.  The best supporting role, though, belongs to Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman.  It's not that he does much, but Walken is one of the best actors for a bit role you can imagine.  With Tim Burton's direction, the Horseman comes off as genuinely creepy, evil and malevolent.

The draw to this movie is not the story (There's a Headless Horseman?  What a twist!) or the acting, but Burton's vision.  While this is not the most imaginative of his movies, it still has his unmistakable feel.  As a director, Tim Burton focuses less on the actor's performances and more on the overall feel of the movie.  This movie won an Oscar for Art Direction and was nominated for costumes and cinematography, and after watching this again, I have to say that I'm not surprised.  The costumes are good (read: colonial-looking), the town is better (authentically colonial, despite being built for the film), and the camera work is the best you will find in a horror movie since The Shining.  While there is a fair amount of blood (brilliantly crimson blood, at that), the movie isn't very gory for a film that features several beheadings.

This adaptation of the classic tale does deviate greatly from the original story, but I think these changes were chosen well.  The major element that everyone remembers from the original story (the Horseman) was just a guy in a costume; here, he becomes bigger than life --- or death.  Making Crane a detective instead of a teacher helps make him a more formidable opponent.  Introducing a conspiracy to the plot adds a mystery that, while not necessary, helps draw the story out long enough to be satisfying.  While I don't imagine Washington Irving's rabid fanbase made a big furor over these changes, they were key to allowing this to go beyond the confines of the short story and expand as a feature film.  Kudos to Burton for seeing the horror in this quaint tale of Americana.

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