Review: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow



Tim Burton


Kevin Yagher, Andrew Kevin Walker (Story: Washington Irving)


1h 45m


Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Steven Waddington, Claire Skinner, Christopher Lee

MPAA Rating



Gothic horror makes a stylistic return to the big screen at the hands of “Batman” and “Edward Scissorhands” director Tim Burton.

Johnny Depp is Ichabod Crane a detective from New York City sentenced to discover the killer of four people in a small town to the north called Sleepy Hollow. The four victims share few common traits other than all were beheaded and NONE of their heads were found. Crane must discover who killed them, for what reason and what they did with their heads.

When he arrives, the constable (Jeffrey Jones), Lord Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon) and others tell Crane of the source of the murders: the headless horseman. Ichabod doesn’t believe them at first, but after he sees the man with his own eyes, he has no problem believing it and works even harder to find out what’s going on.

Along the way he receives help and hindrances from the people in town. He falls in love Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), daughter of Lord Van Tassel, the town’s wealthiest man. His only competition is the little-seen Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien).

There are several things that are right with “Sleepy Hollow.” The most notable of these is the stunning art direction. A small village is beautifully recreated both internally and externally. Accompanying the art direction are the detailed costumes that adorn each of the bizarre denizens of Sleepy Hollow.

The effects, both aural and visual are terrific. Not only are you easily placed into the setting, some of the gruesome beheadings are frighteningly realistic. Not to be outdone, Danny Elfman proves that he is one of the screen’s brightest modern composers. The cinematography is also nice and stands proudly with the other visual accomplishments in the film.

The acting is all believable and sometimes quite incredible, but there are also moments when you feel the performers are dragging their feet, reluctant to give their lines. Miranda Richardson as Lord Van Tassel’s wife is pathetically underused. She doesn’t live up to her best work and isn’t given enough time to develop a more rounded character.

Depp, on the other hand, seems to have made the part his own. He is terrific at playing the straight man to all of Burton’s written and visual jokes. In one scene, he leaps to a chair when he sees a large, hairy spider crawling across the floor. At other times, you could swear Ichabod Crane was a living, breathing person.

Ricci, on yet another hand, is good, but never lives up to expectations. After giving terrific performances in most of her recent efforts, she slips a little with a role that feels more like window dressing than an actual character. Not to say she’s bad by any means, she’s just not brilliant.

Not to be outdone, Van Dien is pathetic. His character is so close to one-dimensionality that it is painful to watch any scene he’s in. Perhaps chosen for his build, Van Dien is completely inappropriate in the film and his role could even be cut to the floor if the character weren’t such a well-known part of the story.

Christopher Walken plays the headless horseman when he’s not so headless. Walken is the villain as usual, but this time he doesn’t have the menacing quality he’s most known for. After surprising us in “Illuminata” he falls backwards and lands with a thud in his new, limited role.

There are other problems with the film. While the editing is quite good overall, there are multiple instances where characters’ reaction shots come too late after the action and feel artificial. Another error, and this time in the writing end, is the use of a Thaumatrope. The Thaumatrope is the spinning disk featuring a cage on one side and a bird on the other. Had the film been set in the mid to late 1800s, I could see the use of this item, however, since the Thaumatrope wasn’t created until 1825, it has no place in a film set in 1799.

The story is quite predictable and one of the least enjoyable parts of the film. After you get enough clues, it’s easy to figure out who the culprit is, unfortunately it’s about 30 minutes before Crane figures it out and then he’s still got to find all the details. Another contrived moment in the script is near the end when the villain reveals the master plan and the master reason behind everything. It’s so clichéd that it left me groaning. Then there’s the witch’s book…the less said, the better.

“Sleepy Hollow” is quite enjoyable. It definitely has its problems, but Burton knows how to bring vivid fantasies to the screen. Tributes to old horror films abound. “Ed Wood” star Martin Landau makes a brief appearance early in the film to get his head lobbed off. Then we see Hammer Horror legend Christopher Lee sending Crane off on his quest to find the killer. It’s definitely interesting to see these faces in the film.

Burton delivers a nice little movie with plenty of visual stimulation to leave you satisfied for a year. “Hollow” has some very wonderful moments and is pretty to look at, but sometimes it just feels…well, hollow.

Awards Prospects

The best shot “Hollow” has at an award are in Art Direction and Costume Design. Nomination possibilties include Original Score, Cinematography, Makeup, Sound, Sound Effects and Visual Effects. In a long shot, we see Johnny Depp with a chance at nomination, but that’s an extreme long shot.

Review Written

November 19, 1999

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