Just when you thought imagination had run dry, Tim Burton makes Sleepy Hollow and you are drowning in the stuff. It is typical of the man who changed Gotham City into Gothic City that he should take Washington Irving's famous ghost story and recreate it on an English sound stage, thereby controlling every aspect of the horror.

Set in 1799, the film opens in New York, where an enthusiastic police constable, Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), is annoying the local judiciary with his advanced theories of detection. The law, it seems, cannot be bothered with the subtleties of proof, as long as a culprit - any culprit - is found. As a reward for his conscientiousness and a way of relieving them of his presence, the burgomaster (Christopher Lee) assigns Crane to Sleepy Hollow, a small town in the Hudson Valley, where prominent members of the community have been found with their heads "lopped off".

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Crane is serious. He is also inexperienced, humourless and quite stupid. When faced with the legend of the Headless Horseman, he announces rather pompously that these crimes have been committed by a person, or persons unknown, "without doubt, flesh-and-blood". Not surprisingly, and in a terrifying manner, he is proved wrong.

Burton's brilliance can be compared to the Brothers Grimm. He creates - in this case, visually - another world that is both strange and familiar. He has retained a childlike ability to believe in dreams, without using the sophisticated device of pastiche. The effects are superb, the atmosphere haunting, the performances rich and the look dark.

Depp captures the intellectual naivety of this man-of-little-learning in the style of Buster Keaton. Crane is afraid to admit ignorance and yet watches helplessly as supernatural forces cause havoc with his theories. Christina Ricci, as daughter of the local squire, has little to do, which is sad, because everything she does is interesting. The supporting cast of Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid and Michael Gough assume the grotesquery of a Gilroy cartoon. Almost everyone speaks with an English accent, even Depp, as if the colonial influence has not yet been bastardised by immigration.

With the help of Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote the screenplay for Se7en, Burton has achieved something remarkable. At a time when ghouls have been relegated to cereal packets, he resurrects an Edwardian fascination with horror. The 15-certificate reflects its fancy dress, as if no one over the age of consent could possibly take a headless slasher seriously. Be warned. This is not a fairytale. It is a blowout for undernourished nightmares.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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A naive policeman of impeccable character attempts to uncover the mystery of supernatural murders in 1799.
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Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Andrew Kevin Walker

Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Christopher Lee

Year: 1999

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany, US

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