The year is 1799 and Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is frustrated at the operations of the justice system in New York, believing them to be outdated. One magistrate (Christopher Lee) decides to send Crane on a mission to teach him a lesson: there has been a spate of mysterious murders in the small town of Sleepy Hollow, which has resulted in the heads of the victims being severed from their bodies. When Crane arrives in the gloomy village, he receives a welcome from the leader of the community, Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), but where the constable is convinced that their is a logical, scientific explanation for the killings, the townsfolk think otherwise - and with good reason...
A very loose adaptation of Washington Irving's story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, if you take an adaptation to mean an almost completely diferent story altogether, this was scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker from a story by him and the man behind the film's impressive special effects, Kevin Yagher. As can be expected from director Tim Burton, the film relies heavily on an atmosphere of the macabre, but it's a cosy kind of chill that is on offer, like a ghost tale told on Christmas Eve. The overall effect of the film is largely down to the Gothic design, with the dour small town under a permanently overcast sky, surrounded by dank, misty woods, and inhabited by citizens in fear of their lives from a possibly supernatural menace.
There's one thing Crane has not been told, that is, all the heads that have been lopped off have also been taken away by the killer. As amusingly played by Depp, Crane is a nervous fellow who is terrified by the rumours of the headless horseman who is supposedly responsible, but leans on his pragmatism to dispel his fears. He will prove with early forensic technology what has really happened to the victims, and it's not long before he gets to see one up close, as another of the town elders is murdered. For the first half hour, the possibility that the killer is one of the locals is a very plausible one, and Crane's deduction and reasoning back that up. But we have been told the legend of the horseman (played by Christopher Walken in a flashback), and increasingly have our doubts.
Van Tassel is married to his second wife (Miranda Richardson) and already has a daughter, Katrina (an ethereal but strangely insubstantial Christina Ricci), from his first marriage who finds a mutual attraction between herself and Crane. She offers him a book of spells that goes against his logical assumptions, but increasingly her belief in the supernatural and witchcraft look to be at the heart of the mystery. Not everyone is as welcoming, as the local tough guy (Casper Van Dien) plays a trick on Crane by dressing up as the horseman and frightening him, and the constable begins to feel his outsider status stronger than ever. However, he gets a sidekick in the shape of a orphan (Marc Pickering), and with the help of a genuine witch tracks down a tall, twisted tree where he finds the heads.
That's not all he finds as the headless horseman and his steed leap from the tangle of roots and gallops off - if that doesn't convince Crane of an otherworldly explanation, nothing will. Sleepy Hollow has a more involved plot than the average Burton film, and when revealed the motives seem convoluted to say the least, so the film is at its best when staging the fright sequences and sustaining the slightly mocking, creepy air. There's a host of reliable character actors backing up Depp and Ricci, and the film has the look of a Hammer Horror on a higher budget. Despite the romantic aspect never taking off, Crane is a refreshingly idiosyncratic change from the type of hero who, for example, Van Dien plays, and makes his achievements more remarkable, even if we didn't really need the complication of the dark secret in the constable's past. Not an entirely smooth ride, Sleepy Hollow is nevertheless a winning adventure with an entertaining marriage of detective work and the paranormal. Music by Danny Elfman.
American director, producer and writer, frequently of Gothic flavoured fantasy who has acquired a cult following in spite of the huge mainstream success of many of his projects. He began as an animator at Disney, who allowed him to work on his own projects while animating the likes of The Fox and the Hound, which garnered the attention of Paul Reubens to direct Pee Wee's Big Adventure.