This is less the Washington Irving story than it is “Scream” set in post- revolutionary times. Its production design by Rick Heinrichs is ravishingly eerie, all gray skies, looming spires, gnarled branches, and rearing horses. The magnificent collection of character actors is almost another element of the production design, with faces right out of Holbein or Daumier. But the spurting blood, rolling heads, and postmodern sense of irony are jarring and uneven. (It’s set in 1799, the end of the century, get it?)
Johnny Depp plays the honorable but easily frightened Ichabod Crane, in this version not a schoolteacher but a sort of 18th century detective, committed to the use of science and logic. He is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders attributed to the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a bloodthirsty Hessian soldier, who steals the heads of his victims because his own was stolen from his grave.
Crane insists that the murderer cannot be supernatural, until he sees it himself. Still, he analyzes the evidence to find the secrets that link the victims together and the human force driving the Headless Horseman.
The themes of science vs. supernatural and appearance vs. reality appear throughout the movie, as Crane must understand his own past in order to see the truth. He describes himself as “imprisoned by a chain of reasoning.” He keeps coming back to a toy given to him by his mother, a spinning disk with a bird on one side and a cage on the other. As it spins, the bird appears to be inside the cage, an optical illusion, and, not by coincidence, the very illusion (persistence of vision) that makes us think that the people in the thousands of still pictures that make up a movie are really moving.
Depp plays Crane with the right haunted look and rigid posture. But the ludicrousness of some of the plot turns and the exaggerated fright reactions leave him with the most outrageous eye-rolling since Harvey Korman’s imitation of a silent film star. Indeed, the movie frequently brings to mind those sublime “Carol Burnett Show” movie parodies, especially when the villain ultimately finds time for a detailed confession as the planned final victim is waiting for the Headless Horseman to arrive. The wonderful Christina Ricci is wasted in an ingenue part.
Parents should know that this is a very, very gory movie, with many headless corpses, lots of spurting blood, heads being sliced off and bouncing to the ground, various other murders, a couple of “boo!”-type scares, and of course characters perpetually in peril. The heads all show up eventually, too. There is a brief but non-explicit scene of a couple having sex, several very gross moments, and a scene of torture in an Iron Maiden. This is only for teens who really enjoy slasher movies, and then if they can’t find a video of something better, like “Poltergeist” or director Tim Burton’s own “Nightmare Before Christmas” or “Edward Scissorhands.”