What is it about decapitation that is so fascinating? Is it the physical separation of the mind and the machine that make up a person? Is it the fact that having your head separated from your body is the ultimate insult? Or is it the potential for all sorts of cool images of flying heads? Whatever it is, it's certainly well-exhibited in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow.
First, a brief synopsis: Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a skeptical, Scully-esque policeman, is dispatched to Sleepy Hollow, an isolated, mostly-Dutch farming community where half the people have English accents, half have Irish accents, and the other half have American accents (there=s surrealism for you). It seems that a headless horseman has been going about decapitating people, much to the dismay and disapproval of the townsfolk. There, he meets the mysterious Katrina, (played by Christina Ricci, whom you can=t help but want to see naked even though she looks about 12) and a bunch of suspicious old men who are the town fathers. They tell him the legend of the horseman, who was a particularly bloodthirsty Hessian (German mercenary fighting for the British during the revolutionary wars) whose schtick was chopping off people=s heads. In the end, he himself was shot, decapitated, and buried in the woods, haunting them ever since. At first, Ichabod doesn=t believe, but he changes his mind soon enough. So as not to give away too much, I'll just say that Ichabod solves the mystery and saves the day. A few people get decapitated along the way.
What strikes one the most about Sleepy Hollow is the visual style, best described as beautifully spooky: unmistakably Tim Burton. The forests of crooked, broken trees, the subdued colours and the ever-present mist all accentuate the pervading mood of mystery and fear, creating an atmosphere somewhere between that of a dream and a fairytale. Think Batman meets The Nightmare Before Christmas 200 years ago. The mist only disappears at the very end of the movie, upon Ichabod's return to New York City, "Just in time for a new century." The setting, in New York State, 1799, is also refreshing. We always see movies about 19th century America, or 18th century Britain, but 18th century America; that's a new one.
The directing style of Sleepy Hollow is something we haven't seen for a while. It's spooky and violent, but campy, with little touches of humour. Example: When Ichabod is asked "Have you thought of something?" He replies "yes...", and after a brief pause that we expect to produce a brilliant piece of insight, he declares "I have!" He announces at one point AI am going into the [haunted] Western Woods, in short to pit myself against a murderous ghost. Who's with me? Even the horseman (the guy who played Darth Maul in Phantom Menace) adds humour in the way he nonchalantly twirls his sword before killing people. As the Hessian, he is played by Christopher Walken, who probably got paid a sickening amount of money for a total of eight minutes of screen time in which he speaks not one word, unless you count "Rarrrrr!"
The net effect is not quite a parody, but not an entirely serious horror movie either. I guess the best way to describe it would be as an homage to the classic Hammer horror movies of the fifties (Christopher Lee has a cameo role as a judge in New York). Whether it works depends on what you=re expecting from it. If you watch it without any prior expectations, it works quite well, albeit in a unique way. Even if it doesn=t work for you, it=s worth seeing if just for the sheer visual beauty with which it is made. And for the grisly decapitations.