Sleepy Hollow is another one of those films that seems to think it’s far greater than it is. It opens with some guy signing a letter set to an epic score by Danny Elfman. The soundtrack continues this way throughout, but I didn’t know that signing and sealing a letter could be such a dramatic undertaking. He is also going to deliver is, but that journey is cut short when both he and his driver are beheaded.
We then meet our hero, Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), who gets told by Christopher Lee (in his only appearance of the film) to head to a town called Sleepy Hollow so that he can investigate the murder of three townspeople. I viewed this decision as more of a punishment than anything, as Crane had previously told the New York court that they need to change with the times and stop sentencing people based on evidence that cannot be called “concrete.” Calling it a punishment also makes a lot of sense to me, as this is a character who faints with ease, is skeptical of everything, and is fairly cowardly. He’s not exactly the best choice to go to a town that seems perfect for a horror movie.
He accepts his torture though, and ends up staying at the creepiest house in the town, which is stationed at the top of a hill where the sun never seems to shine. He’s told by the people of the town — a group consisting of Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths and a few others — that the headless horseman has decided to come torture the town. The reasoning isn’t clear, but he’s been severing and then stealing the head of the residents that he kills. Crane, a man of logic and reasoning, doesn’t believe this, so he embarks on a quest to figure out who of “flesh and blood” is behind the recent killing spree.
What we do for most of the film is watch Crane act like Sherlock Holmes, except that he’s nowhere near as competent. He doesn’t face danger, he flees from it or faints in its presence. He also, despite claiming otherwise, doesn’t seem to care much about logic or reason, especially once magic gets involved. I guess seeing a person and a horse come out from the roots of a tree that bleeds red blood would be enough to change anyone’s viewpoint.
Up until we first see the Horseman, I was quite engaged. After seeing him a couple of times, I was much less interested. Something about seeing the serial killer a bunch, especially after he’s had the chance to kill our hero and decides against it, makes him seem less menacing. The Horseman decides to show up whenever is least opportune, and becomes as predictable as the soundtrack attempting to drum up suspense, even when all it’s really doing is making me laugh.
Despite the Horseman not really living up to his promise, the atmosphere in Sleepy Hollow is pretty good. The set design, the lighting, the costumes — it all works in order to give us a sense of dread and despair. It does help increase the tension, even if it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect from director Tim Burton. The only thing that throws the setting off is the CGI blood, which is distracting and took me out of the mood that I was supposed to be feeling.
I don’t remember the original short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, but I’m fairly certain this “adaptation” doesn’t stick very close to it. That’s fine in my mind, although it doesn’t explain why all of the characters, especially Ichabod Crane, have to be bland and have absolutely nothing to offer us in terms of depth. If you’re changing things up from the story, you’re allowed to improve the characters and give them real personalities.
Instead, what we get is a tacked-on back story that Crane experiences whenever he sleeps or passes out. Said back story doesn’t come into play at all, except so that we can call his childhood a “tragedy”, even if it didn’t impact him at all. He has holes in his hands, something that a young woman named Katrina (Christina Ricci) wonders about. He says he has had them since his memory began, although in a flashback, we find out the reason, as does he. But nothing is ever done with this, or indeed anything about his childhood. Maybe it explains why he faints at the first sign of trouble, but the correlation isn’t all that clear, and I’m grasping at straws to draw anything from it.
Katrina, who ends up being his love interest (a relationship that happens far too quickly, I might add), is just as bland. She’s innocent, so we think, and basically does nothing except to act as suspect #2. Crane, even after seeing the Horseman for himself, still thinks that a human is behind its resurrection, so he begins suspecting everyone with even a potentially vague motive, proving that he’s forgotten completely what he was fighting for which got him sentenced to this place in the first place.
The atmosphere, the setting, the musical score, and the costumes all allow Sleepy Hollow to be effective, but the mundane plot and uninspired characters wind up undermining their efforts to a great deal. It’s still an easily watchable film, and for the good parts alone, I’d suggest giving it a watch, but unfortunately, there are a lot of things wrong with it that keep it from being very good or even great.