In adapting The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow - formerly a classic short story by Washington Irving and a classic animated featurette by Walt Disney - arch visualist Tim Burton declared his desire to make a movie inspired by the classic horrors of Hammer. What? Fake sets, dry ice, big boobs and Christopher Lee?! Well, in Burton's sumptuous tale you get the cleavage. You even get Lee. You also get what is probably the most beautiful horror movie ever made. And a cracking piece of action cinema to boot.
In both the Irving and Disney version, Ichabod Crane was a scaredy-cat school teacher; here it's still late 1799, but he is a New York city police constable (Depp), a man ahead of his time in his belief in scientific evidence and forensics, at the dawn of a new century of enlightenment. Sent by his superior (a brief but telling cameo from Lee) to the quiet upstate town of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of brutal murders, Crane arrives, appropriately enough at Halloween, and quickly learns that all the victims were beheaded and their bonces never found.
Ensconced in the home of Sleepy Hollow's finest, Baltus Van Tassel (Gambon), Constable Crane is told the story of the Hessian Horseman (a pointy-toothed Christopher Walken) - a former German mercenary who specialised in decapitating the locals during the War of American Independence. It is his ghost - the Headless Horseman - whom the locals believe is responsible for the killings. Crane believes nothing of the sort - until he finds himself face to, well, neck with the demonic being. In between fainting with fear, leering with desire at the Van Tassels' daughter Katrina (Ricci) and several more attacks from the headless one, Crane begins to uncover the true story behind the town's killer...
Always a filmmaker with an eye for eccentric visual detail, with Sleepy Hollow Tim Burton has produced what could be his most lavish film yet. Taking his love of the cheesier Hammer movies of yore, Burton, along with production designer Rick Heinrichs and the luminescent camerawork of Emmanuel Lubezki, has created a beautifully dark world, rich in shadows and swirling mist, full of dread. Limiting his palette to dark hues and earth tones, Burton gets maximum impact from the one primary colour he allows himself - blood red. And boy, does it flow when the Headless Horseman is in town.
Cast wise, Burton is well met by his on-screen alter ego Depp, who delivers a finely nuanced and entertaining turn as Ichabod. Ricci is elegant and as mysterious as she needs to be, while Gambon and Richardson - particularly the latter - get their teeth into just about all of the fine scenery on display. Veterans like Michael Gough, Richard Griffiths and Star Wars' Emperor-in-the-making Ian McDiarmid flesh out the background in fine style, whilst Burton veteran Jeffrey Jones' wig reminds us that Burton has not lost his touch for humour. Indeed, there's much to laugh at in Sleepy Hollow - some might argue a touch too much.
Yes, there are faults - Depp's fainting becomes a tad wearisome and the climax ups the melodrama factor to about 11 -but what remains is a beautiful slice of fear. This is Tim Burton's world - we should be grateful just to spend a couple of hours in it.