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Is this film available for rent on Netflix Instant and Apple iTunes? The film is not available on Netflix Instant, but it is available for rent through the Apple iTunes store.

In 1999, there were two films I could not wait to see. The first was Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. We all know how that embarrassing mess turned out. The second was Sleepy Hollow, a return to form for Tim Burton, who was looking for a box office success after the failure of Mars Attacks! and his failure to launch Superman. With Sleepy Hollow, Burton promised a return to the gothic quirky shit that he established his name with in such films as Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Nightmare Before Christmas (and Ed Wood to some degree). Sleepy Hollow also had the added bonus of reacquainting Burton with his frequent leading man, Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood). With a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, whose Seven was a sensational success, it seemed impossible for Sleepy Hollow to be anything short of phenomenal.

Sleepy Hollow is a very loose adaptation of Washington Irving’s short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The story takes place in 1799 in the village of Sleepy Hollow, which is located somewhere in upstate New York. Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane, a New York City detective whose scientific deductive methods earn him scorn and ridicule by his peers. Crane’s idiosyncratic method eventually causes him to be banished to Sleepy Hollow to investigate three deaths. All three victims were incapacitated and their heads were taken. Upon arriving at the village, Ichabod is informed by the town’s elders that the victims were not killed by a man of flesh and blood, but actually by the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken), an undead Hessian (German) mercenary from the American Revolutionary War. Initially, Ichabod refuses to believe such nonsense. Ichabod’s scientific mind refuses to believe in the notion of an undead headless horseman killing off villagers. Until he comes face to face with the Horseman.

Remember how at the end of every Scooby-Doo episode, Scooby and gang find out the ghoul or ghost or whatever has been chasing them is actually a disgruntled school janitor? That is essentially what we have in Sleepy Hollow. Once you remove the luscious production design and costumes and get past the star-studded performances, Sleepy Hollow is nothing but your typical whodunit murder mystery with a dash of the supernatural thrown in. This is not unusual for a Tim Burton film, especially his most recent ones. Even in his good films, Burton tends to heavily rely on style over substance. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker has unfortunately ditched the careful analysis that his two detective characters employed to solve the mystery in Seven, his first script, for a far more lazy approach in Sleepy Hollow.

IMG_2977For one, the film fails to establish Depp’s competence in being a detective. For example, the detective guide Depp uses for reference is nothing but a bunch of drawings with a few words jotted here and there. During most of the film, Depp seems to be in over his head in figuring anything out. Whatever clues Depp discovers are ones he seems to stumble upon by accident rather than figure out (e.g. the witch’s house, the Tree of the Dead). This leads to another issue, which is that Depp makes huge discoveries without an explanation as to how he made those discoveries. This happens repeatedly throughout the film and this is one of the most cardinal sins a screenwriter can make. For example, after finding a bunch of severed heads inside the Tree of the Dead, Depp concludes that the tree is a “gateway” between two worlds. He also deduces from a buried headless skeleton that the Headless Horseman takes his victims’ heads in order to restore his own head. Depp also mysteriously figures out that the Headless Horseman is controlled by another person. Andrew Kevin Walker handled this much better in Seven, where Morgan Freeman’s character meticulously studied every murder and connected one clue to another. The audience participated in Freeman’s thought-making process and regardless of whether or not Freeman used realistically accurate crime methods, what he did felt plausible and you believed in the character. Not so with Depp’s Ichabod Crane.

IMG_2981In addition, unlike in Seven, there is absolutely no tension in Sleepy Hollow and despite the fact that the Headless Horseman is offing villagers seemingly at random, there is also no sense that the stakes are high. One reason for this is the film’s slow pacing and lack of buildup. Much of the film’s slow pacing is due to the excessive exposition given by Ichabod Crane as he explains the various clues he’s discovered. However, the biggest reason I think is that none of Sleepy Hollow feels grounded enough in reality. There is such an overriding concern for style that the audience becomes disconnected with the story and the characters. Granted, when the Headless Horseman comes galloping to take his next victim, its staged very well, but you never get a sense of dread (NOTE: Paranormal Activity is a great example where this is done right; where you get a feeling of dread every time the ghost appears).

A further issue, albeit a smaller one, is how flat the comedy is in Sleepy Hollow. For some reason Burton and Depp thought that Ichabod Crane fainting whenever he sees something fantastical was hilarious. I think the last time anyone found this to be funny was during the silent era of films. Also, what did Ichabod’s aversion to blood contribute either to the story or his character? If it was intended to be funny, then again, it was not.

IMG_2980Clearly, Sleepy Hollow has many issues and here is another: not only is there zero chemistry between Christina Ricci and Johnny Depp, Ricci’s Madonna-esque attempt at an English accent is the funniest thing about this movie even though I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be funny. Watching Ricci and Depp get intimate felt way too creepy and I felt like I was watching child pornography. Depp simply looks much older than Ricci and that alone killed any hope of a romantic chemistry. Besides, the romantic plotline distracts from the main story and it was completely unnecessary. The romance feels shoehorned into the story and as I stated before, it feels awkward as it is.

Luckily for Burton and Depp, not is all lost for Sleepy Hollow. In fact, I don’t regard this as being Burton’s worst film. That distinction is reserved for his later films (e.g. Planet of the Apes, Sweeney Todd, and Alice in Wonderland). What Sleepy Hollow has going for it in spades is the sumptuous production design, for which it deservedly won an Academy Award for Production Designer Rick Heinrichs and Set Decorator Peter Young. I would actually recommend you turn off the sound and just watch Sleepy Hollow for its visuals. I absolutely dug the film’s Hammer Films homage by giving the nighttime exteriors a fake sound stage look. Sleepy Hollow’s fantastic look is also attributed to the great work done by DP Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life, Great Expectations, Meet Joe Black, Y tu mama tambien, Children of Men, and the upcoming Gravity), who I consider one of Hollywood’s absolute best cinematographers. Burton was so impressed by Lubezki’s work on Great Expectations that he hired him on shoot Sleepy Hollow. This is no doubt an elegant looking movie and I would almost say its worth owning just for its look.

IMG_2994Lets also not forget the wonderful group of actors Burton managed to put together. Aside from Johnny Depp, Sleepy Hollow also features the talents of Christopher Lee (Hammer Films homage), Michael Gough (another Hammer Films homage and for which he came out of retirement at Burton’s urging), Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, and Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman.

Sleepy Hollow was 1999’s second biggest disappointment behind Star Wars Episode I. The film feels like it was aware of its narrative deficiencies and so it covered up for it by wowing the audience with a whole lot of spectacle. I suppose it worked in some sense as Sleepy Hollow managed to generate approximately $206 million worldwide at the box office. Its frustrating to see a film like this squander such a great concept on such a mediocre screenplay (and to top this off, Danny Elfman wrote one of his most forgettable film scores in his career).

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