Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tim Burton #7: 'Sleepy Hollow' (1999)

Burton and the period trappings of the legend of the headless horseman seem like a match made in heaven, and sure enough, there are times during Sleepy Hollow (the director's first film with Johnny Depp since 1994's Ed Wood) that certainly exude the qualities reminiscent of the director's natural aesthetic of mixing the fantastical with the whimsical and the macabre.

Nevertheless, Sleepy Hollow reveals itself to be Burton working in a more relaxed, instinctive frame of mind, resulting in a film that is certainly competently told and visually arresting, yet inevitably too lenient to present itself as anything much more than what it is.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, because for most of its running-time, Sleepy Hollow is a misty, moonlit 19th century horror-mystery that gently entertains and entices through its easygoing, fabled disposition. Perhaps its greatest feat is how it deftly combines humor with violence and how it never strays from what it is - a trait that ultimately undid Joe Johnston's The Wolfman, which took itself so seriously that the climactic "battle of the wolves" felt like a full-blown charade.

Lensed by the great Emmanuel Lubezki in this their first and only collaboration, Burton initially wanted to shoot in black-and-white and in a squarish 1.33:1 aspect ratio in a deliberate attempt to replicate the classic studio-era horror films of RKO and Universal, but instead he and Lubezki decided upon a deadly blue monochrome style that accentuates the gothic art direction and leafy set design, which pulled its weight during a production shot almost entirely on sets.

And it's the playful and visual imprints of Tim Burton that see this otherwise middling horror whodunit through to its conclusion. It doesn't have the artistry or the essence of the director's best, but it lays on the provocative genre elements so thickly that we can't help but be caught up in its grisly yet likeable world of supernatural killers, beheadings and off-beat police constables.

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