You may remember the cartoon version of Washington Irving's classic tale, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" as the humorous fable of cowardly school teacher Ichabod Crane, the victim of a frightening practical joke perpetrated upon him by rival Braum Bones. Lanky Crane was frightened away from the sleepy New England town thereby leaving Katrina Van Tassel, his object of affection, to the more macho and Aryan Mr. Bones. But this version isn't like that.
As an audience I had an expectation. Keith Johnstone in his brilliant book Impro for Storytellers says that performers should fulfill the audience's expectations--not necessarily by the most obvious means, but by the end of the story, the audience should be satisfied. Reaching outside the realm of the audiences expectations forces them to shift their perspective from enjoying the story to having to notice how clever and creative the storytellers are. Personally, I find that Tim Burton often pulls this tactic, spinning his movies in ways that cause a viewer to pay more attention to his efforts as a filmmaker than to the story. In Revenge from Mars, there were no characterizations to speak of--just a lot of under-developed earthlings running around some clever, demoniacally cute aliens. It's Burton saying, "look how good I am at creating aliens! I even got them to blow up The Landmark Hotel for my movie!"
Burton's not the only one either. David Lynch's older stuff turned me off by trying to shock me instead of letting its stories unfold. But the worst is Oliver Stone, that self-important doo-doo-meister who makes movies about his heroes only to indicate how cool he himself is for having them as heroes. Oliver Stone makes me cringe.
Now with all the direction and production and special effects, Burton emerges as the best-of-class filmmaker of his kind. But me, I'd rather just have a story.
So let's get to the story, what there is of it. Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane, a constable this time, not a school teacher. Crane is into scientific explanations of things, especially since his mother was tortured to death by his father, a religious freak witch-burner. This fact further creates an expectation that we'll have a classic mystery on our hands--a who dunnit set in antiquated New England.
Crane goes to the spooky town of Sleepy Hollow to find out who is chopping the heads off of its citizens. Legend has it that a Headless Horseman is doing the deed. This horseman was a merciless Hessian warrior killed in battle and now, supposedly returned from the dead. Crane is told this legend by a crew of suspicious men, all with possible motives, and this adds to the expectation that a mystery will be solved.
But Burton steps in here to dash what could have been an intriguing puzzle by introducing the supernatural. Yes, it turns out that nobody is pretending to be the Headless Horseman, but that the poppycock legend spieled out by the town fathers is actually true. An honest-to-Satan equestrian headhunter is lopping noggins in Sleepy Hollow.
Here, I find myself no longer in the story. I wanted a mystery to follow all this set-up, but now I have to pay attention to Burton's special effects while the mystery takes a backseat. The script makes a pitable attempt to revive the mystery--for we still don't know who's controlling the headless hitman. But who really cares? None of the "normals" could be half as downright evil--or interesting--as the badass horse-riding ghoul, no matter how weird they (over)act.
No, it's all about special effects once we get 30 minutes into this short film. Sure, they are pretty good: you get the gothic Burton world, looking like an Edward Gorey illustration: dark sky, lightning, gnarled trees, scared-looking people. You get gruesome gore-puppets and fully active portals to hell.
The thread of mystery, meanwhile, is match with the faintest hint of romance: Depp makes a friend in Christina Ricci. And he has adopted a young squire whose father was a victim of the decapitating demon. The three of them venture in the forest and find the tree of death. Depp consults with a ghost about what to do. Finally, Crane discovers who is controlling the horseman. It's not a mystery that he really solves as much as the answer comes to him. I'm sorry to keep on about this, but the whole "solving a mystery" aspect is paper thin, with obvious perforations.
In the end, the good live and the evil die, as you'd expect. When I watched the movie, it ended long after nightfall, but I felt no tremors going down into the basement to do laundry. Now, just hearing a recording of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" will get me all a-tremble, but this movie isn't scary like that. I guess I should be thankful to Tim Burton on this score since, again, his puppetry takes center stage, pushing out any actual feelings of thrilling horror.
I liked Christopher Walken as the Horseman. That dude is perfect for the role, even scarier looking here with filed down teeth. Depp is good to watch, as usual, really getting into his character even though his character is a shoddy patchwork of cowardliness and bravery, intelligence and close-mindedness. He switches poles at the whim of the script, but remains fascinating. Christina Ricci is also good to watch, adorable as she is, even though her character is even shallower than Depp's. And then there's that puffy-faced guy who has small roles in films like Howard the Duck. He has another small puffy-faced role in this movie, and carries it off swimmingly.
I recommend this as a fun and relaxing film. You get some good special effects, which is why you should rent it. Do not rent it if you're looking for a good mystery, a good horror film, a good comedy, or a good drama.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.