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Tim Burton sticks his neck out

By Alicia Potter

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  Tim Burton loves an anatomical misfit. Whereas David Lynch stopped championing the malformed after two films, Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, Burton has populated an entire body of work with characters who, well, look a little odd. From the utilitarian-fisted manchild of Edward Scissorhands and the cross-dressing dreamer of Ed Wood to the neoprene-encased hero and grotesque villains of Batman and Batman Returns, he's a master at divining the fragility, beauty, and dignity in physical difference. And though his latest -- a stylistically spellbinding take on the Washington Irving chiller about a horseman with no head -- isn't exactly a departure, this time, in cutting the scariness with sentimentality and schlock, Burton ends up slitting his own throat.

The first indication that the director has shunned a strict interpretation of the 1819 short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is this: Ichabod Crane is cute. As played by Burton regular Johnny Depp, our protagonist is no longer the dorky schoolteacher with "hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves" but a natty New York City constable who, in keeping with Depp's shrewd preference for playing up the sensitivity behind his dark good looks, displays a knack for forensic gadgetry and enough nervous mannerisms to out-flutter Hugh Grant. It's a deviation with great ironic implications: when headless corpses start piling up in the Hudson Valley village of Sleepy Hollow, who better to pit against a neck-whacking madman than a logician who, above all, values the contents of his own head?

Burton's visual gifts and sly sensibility are very much alive among the stumpy-necked dead of Sleepy Hollow. Indeed, his portentous depiction of the gingerbread-house hamlet is so bleak and fog-swathed, it appears to be filmed in black and white. Likewise, the locals, with their fussy wigs and generous dewlaps, are an appropriately dour bunch who look suspiciously upon Depp's outsider. As for Irving's "Galloping Hessian" (played by Rob Inch and Ray Park, the latter of whom sliced and diced as Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), Burton's horseman lives up to his campfire rep: he's a vicious, chop-crazy apparition who, in one of the film's more thrilling sequences, thunders forth from the contorted roots of the Dantesque "Tree of Death" in pursuit of his next throat.

Yet despite the snorting black stallion and the repertoire of ax tricks, the Blair Witch twigs have it all over this guy. Once the first of many, many heads roll, the film just isn't frightening. Burton seems more intent on inspiring giggles than goosebumps, as he forces a self-conscious, fantastical homage to the Hammer horror flicks of the '50s and '60s. (Christopher Lee, who portrayed Dracula in several of these films, appears in a cameo.) Many of the "scares" buck for tepid laughs: Depp repeatedly gets squirted with blood; someone cries out, "Watch your head!"; faces morph into goofy goblins; and Christopher Walken, the king of over-the-top kitsch, sports hilarious picket-fence teeth in a flashback of the horseman before he lost his noggin.

The script, by Andrew Kevin Walker of Seven and Fight Club fame, even excuses the headless one for his murderous ways -- it seems that whoever has stolen the horseman's skull from his grave dictates his killings. With that, Burton stokes a subplot around Sleepy Hollow's beady-eyed dignitaries -- led by a fine Richard Gambon -- as we try to figure out who possesses the purloined pate. It's like a rote game of Clue: did the reverend do it? the notary? the magistrate? At the same time, Ichabod hits it off with the comely Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci, wasted here), a flirtation that further muddles the plot with unresolved themes about the co-existence of magic and logic.

The tried-and-true elements of Burton's oeuvre just don't work here. His usually mordant fascination with lost or forgotten children takes a puzzling -- and plot-stalling -- turn when he saddles the erstwhile Ichabod with an Oedipal complex. Agitated by his run-ins with the horseman, the investigator drifts in and out of a febrile dreamscape in which he revisits some rather intense mother love with bosomy Lisa Marie (Burton's real-life paramour) in the role of Mama Crane.

As if the narrative weren't already fatter than a late-October pumpkin, the director then unleashes a climactic chase scene, some pyrotechnics, and flip tossaway lines worthy of a Schwarzenegger romp. By this point, as Irving's classic fades to little more than a junior-high-English-class memory, it's Burton who's lost his head.

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