Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) stands before New York City’s burgomaster (Christopher Lee), tense, poised, ready to break. Formidable, Lee’s glare paralyzes Crane’s will — a nice touch considering that Tim Burton’s film tries to pay desperate homage to the Hammer productions, to those glorious days of stilted discourse and walking corpses, of blood-sucking beasts and painted backdrops.
The 19th century is upon our strong-headed protagonists, and with it, all the great scientific discoveries meant to shatter their belief in fairy tales and supernatural phenomena. And yet, 57 years before the birth of Sigmund Freud, and 96 years before the first experiments with the X-ray and the movie camera, Constable Crane is being sent on an impossible mission. He is to solve a series of crimes attributed to a knight errant of sorts, known — in the little village of Sleepy Hollow — as the Headless Horseman.
But Ichabod Crane is a knight errant himself. He has gadgets — medical and optical instruments of his own design — that would make Jules Verne green with envy. He has the rash temper of Sherlock Holmes and the dizzy spells of a damsel in distress. And he dreams: of his mother, of wild flowers and the lightness of being, of descants and red doors, of blood chambers. Is Ichabod Crane the son of a witch? Perhaps.
Burton’s film doesn’t give Crane’s character (or any character, for that matter) much of a chance. Preoccupied with its haunting, almost monochromatic look, the film all but ignores the superb potential of its actors: Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson (Tom & Viv) and Michael Gambon (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover). In the end, we are more captivated by decor than by the secrets of Sleepy Hollow’s nouveaux riches: the Tree of the Dead, described by designer Rick Heinrichs as "agony captured in wood sculpture"; the Horseman’s sad yet terrifying countenance (Christopher Walken with a Medusa twinkle in his eye); and the huge windmill whose sails are "pure Tim Burton batwings" (Heinrichs), at which we tilt, dispassionately, as twitching corpses and rolling heads fail to scare us into submission.
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