In this Tim Burton adaptation of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, Depp is cast as Ichabod Crane. Instead of portraying Crane as the jittery schoolmaster, Burton recasts him as a New York City constable bent on applying forensic science and “modern” investigative techniques to everyday cases. Crane’s fastidious investigations and doing things by the book puts him at odds with his superiors’ preferred method of rough justice. Partly as punishment and partly to get rid of him, Crane is dispatched to Upper State New York to investigate several beheadings in the village of Sleepy Hollow.
Burton’s adaptation seems to be at odds with its own narrative from the start. In his native New York City we see Ichabod Crane being depicted as a cool customer, ready to confront his superiors and take on the system, yet later in the movie we quickly see how ‘delicate’ Crane is and that his confrontational nature witnessed in the courtroom is no where to be seen.
As with many of Depp’s roles he’s noted in interviews that he took inspiration from a number of real life sources for his performance as Ichabod- Angela Landsbury, Roddy McDowall, and “a frightened little girl”. Depp’s gift of being able to turn off and on these masks, almost hinders him in Sleepy Hollow in my opinion as his performance felt uneven to me.
The film is gorgeous to look at it as you would expect for a Burton film, but I was surprised rewatching how few Burton-esque flourishes there are. The pumpkin scarecrow, that bears a striking resemblance to Jack Skellington, and the haunted tree are two of the creations that are immediately recognizable as Burton.
Certain “comedic” touches such as Ichabod getting splattered by blood on numerous occasions seemed over-the-top*. I joked with a friend that between the blood splatter and Ichabod’s squeamish face / near fainting spells you could have yourself a pretty good drinking game with Sleepy Hollow.
Oh wait, someone has already had the same thought – Fire Frog’s Sleepy Hollow Drinking Game.
Christopher Walken is criminally wasted as the Headless Horsemen here, channelling his inner Tasmanian Devil, gnashing his chiselled teeth and growling in the few scenes when he’s in possession of his head.
Christina Ricci does a good job as Ichabod’s foil / love interest Katrina Van Tassel when she’s not being upstaged by her step-mother, the Headless Horsemen, or Ichabod’s fainting/showboating. Burton is blessed with a wonderful cast of supporting actors from Ian McDermid and Christopher Lee (both of who played critical roles in Star Wars), to future Harry Potter stalwarts Richard Griffiths and Michael Gambon.
Unfortunately, I never found the film as suspenseful or as terrifying as I did the original Disney cartoon of Sleepy Hollow. Granted the movie was entertaining to watch, but I found that I cared little for unravelling the mystery of who was controlling the Headless Horsemen, or what their motive was. For me I, spent more of the film wishing that Burton had jettisoned the entire Headless Horsemen plot and instead explored Ichabod Crane and his crime fighting in NYC – consider it an early precursor to CSI: New York. Of course your mileage may vary, depending on your affinity for all things Burton/Depp.
*Especially when the blood is from a corpse.
Note: As fate would have it, immediately after I re-watched this movie, the new TV series – Sleepy Hollow aired on Fox in the fall of 2013. An interesting mix of cheesy action and creepy horror had me far more interested than Burton’s 1999 film.
Up next I review Depp’s small roles in the 2000 film – Before Night Falls directed by Julian Schnabel about Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas.