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Friday, March 3, 2000

'SLEEPY HOLLOW'

Welcome to my revenge fantasy


Imagine a remote forest under an eerie moonlit sky, dead leaves crackling underfoot on a desolate winter's eve. That's creepy enough as is (see "The Blair Witch Project"), but now imagine that every single tree is looming menacingly toward you with gnarled branches, that tendrils of ghostly mist emerge and extinguish your torches while pumpkin-headed scarecrows pop up like leering ghouls, and the sound of a thundering gallop draws ever closer.

Welcome to Tim Burton land. "Sleepy Hollow" is the director's latest excursion into genre recycling and super-stylized visuals, and -- believe it or not -- it's his most Gothic film yet.

Based on the classic Washington Irving tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, "Sleepy Hollow" is an elaborate period piece set in the postrevolution America of 1799, where rural villages were surrounded by forbidding wilderness, and ghosts seemed all too real.

The film (which takes more than a few liberties with its source material) follows upright New York attorney Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) as he investigates a series of grisly murders in the shuttered-up hamlet of Sleepy Hollow: The victims have all been decapitated, their heads nowhere to be found. Locals speak of a spook, the vengeful spirit of a Hessian mercenary, but Crane suspects a human hand at work.

This feeling is reinforced by the conspiratorial air surrounding the village elders, particularly rich merchant Baltus van Tassel (Michael Gambon) and the uptight Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones). But when Crane insists on an autopsy of one of the victims -- in a squirm-inducing scene that David Lynch would love -- he's shocked to find that the neck-stump has been cauterized! Crane has no response to the wizened old magistrate (Michael Gough), whose gravel-voiced opinion is that the sword was forged in the fires of hell.

The film pits scientific rationalism, as represented by Ichabod Crane, against the supernatural. This being a Burton film, it's no surprise that the supernatural wins out, personified here by the enchanting form of novice wiccan Katrina van Tassel (Christina Ricci), who's after Crane's heart, and the terrifying Horseman, who's after Crane's head.

The plot's twists and turns are a bit strained, but with set design as magical as this (provided by longtime Burton collaborator Rick Heinrichs), who's complaining? Visually, the film is never less than stunning, and its misty, haunted atmosphere is completely immersing. The Headless Horseman, bursting suddenly out of the darkness and whirling his hatchet with a flourish, is an authentic ghoul, while Christina Ricci is transformed into a wan, ethereal beauty, seemingly conjured from one of Poe's absinthe visions.

Depp is in nervous, ratty hair-mode here, thus signaling another turn as Burton's alter ego (after "Edward Scissorhands" and "Ed Wood"), that of the quirky geek who triumphs over the bullies and gets the girl. A close look at the film's revisions to Irving's original tale reveals Burton's addiction to this recurring theme of his: Irving's Crane was a wimpy dupe, fooled into fleeing from an imaginary spook by his bullying rival Brom van Brunt, who humiliates Crane in order to steal his girl. In Burton's flick, he-man Brom (Caspar van Diem) blows his top and loses his head, while cautious, timid Ichabod saves the day.

Fans of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," Burton's early shorts ("Vincent" and "Frankenweenie"), or any of the classic Hammer horror films will love this, but be forewarned that this is not one for the kids -- heads do indeed roll with alarming frequency. Macabre stuff, but with a bit of a comic flourish as well, which Sam Raimi would surely appreciate; this is surely destined to be the ultimate Halloween flick.

It's a good thing the gloom-ensconced visuals are so appealing, as the film's themes don't hold up in the light of day. Burton seems at odds with himself: On the one hand, his Ichabod Crane -- unlike the poor dupe in Irving's original tale -- is a hero because he bears the light of rationality in ignorant times, championing scientific logic over torture, witch hunting and superstition.

When young Katrina asks him, "What do you believe in?" he has a ready answer: "Rational thought: sense and reason." But by film's end, Ichabod has to accept the irrational realities of a horseman from hell, demonic possession and spell-casting witches. Point being?

Well, don't think too hard. By the time the Horseman corners his prey in an old windmill (quoting from the original "Frankenstein") you, like Burton, will agree that a world with spooks is a lot more fun than a world without them.

"Sleepy Hollow" is playing at Shibutoh Cine Tower and other theaters.


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