In the night, no one can hear you scream…what?
When he arrives in the small farming community of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane is a man of letters lost amongst a population of illiterate agriculturalists. His erudite ways and self-centered sophistication makes him ostentatious to some, foolish to others. One person who sees beyond the boorish façade is Katrina Van Tassel. Betrothed to a brawny but brutish blacksmith named Brom Bones, she longs for a more exciting and liberating life beyond the role of housewife and milkmaid. In the persona of the long, lanky schoolmaster, she sees someone whose soul is given over to education and dreams, both things she longs for. Soon, a bond of sorts forms between Ichabod and Katrina. Even though he has passionate feelings for her, Ichabod's bumbling, shy personality (as well as his liquor loosened tongue) keeps him from saying the proper things. Brom is furious, and wants to win Katrina back, but the only way he can succeed is if he gets Ichabod out of the way. With Mr. Van Tassel's help, he devises a plan. He will scare Ichabod out of the Hollow with the famous tale of the Headless Horseman, a Hessian who helped the colonials defeat the British during the Revolutionary War and lost his skull over it. Now the rogue spirit haunts the local roadways at the witching hour. Brom plans to pose as the evil specter and, when the time is perfect, drive his rival out of town. But the supernatural spirit may have a plan of his own. He's not known as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for nothing.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of those beloved pieces of American folklore and literature that everyone knows, but few people have actually read. Most memories of this colonial ghost story come from untold elementary school puppet shows or the wildly imaginative (if substantively slick) Disney cartoon. What small child hasn't hunkered down in deathly fear at the notion of the headless horseman riding up behind them on some dark and forbidding wooded road, flaming pumpkin poised to pelt them into purgatory…or worse. Yet the reality of Washington Irving's comedic cautionary tale about the battle between sophistication and superstition is like a communal hallucination, a vapor enjoyed by one and all but for very ephemeral, mob mentality reasons. It doesn't help that most motion picture adaptations (the House of Mouse one included) have leapt from the middle English pages of this pre-Federalist colonialism to focus on the more frightening or funny features. Treatments as diverse as Tim Burton's Hammer homage Sleepy Hollow to a stupid slasher flick entitled Sleepy Hollow High indicate how easily the story basics can be borrowed to create something unique, or useless. In 1999, Canadian director Pierre Gang hijacked one of the Great White Way's brightest lights to make a new version of the tall tale completely faithful to Irving's work. And aside from an opening and closing bit of book ending, he has succeeded. Sometimes, regrettably, being authentic to the source material can be as detrimental to a film and its storytelling as wild re-imagining. But aside from one perfect part, this television movie feels like it's almost 200 years old.
The biggest problem with this The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is its inconsistent casting. As Ichabod Crane, Broadway star Brent Carver (he won a Tony for Kiss of the Spider Woman) is a pitch perfect revelation. There has perhaps never been an Ichabod this human and realistic. Most actors want to make him ganglier and oafish, but Carver imparts in him a gentle naïveté that reads remarkably well onscreen. He is almost too good at bringing an 18th century feeling to the film. Whenever he is onscreen with his costars, he tends to reveal their modern thespian methodologies. In the role of Katrina Van Tassel, Rachelle Lefevre comes across as the stand-in from a junior high production. She looks much too young and acts far too contemporary to be a cloistered farm girl, no matter how large her dreams. Her line readings all sound the same, as if she is merely practicing a more provincial take on the material. But even worse is beefy boulder dome Paul Lemelin, who makes Brom Bones the only backwoods blacksmith with a surf punk attitude. His post-Revolutionary artisan appears to be more comfortable at the beach than behind an anvil. Both Lefevre and Lemelin were featured in MTV's sorry teen soap opera Undressed (not necessarily a bastion of brave acting choices) and the smug self-consciousness of that show seems to have rubbed off on them. Add to this that the entire Irving exercise has to be padded (with endless conversations and scenes of pseudo-slapstick) to meet a 90-minute boob tube mandated running time, and what seems like centuries of endurance transforms into eons. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow may be a timeless classic, but no one told the plot or teleplay to take this concept literally.
Typical of a Hallmark Entertainment presentation, this Sleepy Hollow looks rich with authentic settings and sets. Gang does a decidedly bizarre thing of tweaking the fall and winter landscape with obvious colorizing effects (imagine what the Coens did in O Brother, Where Art Thou? only taken to a twisted degree) which causes the 1.33:1 full screen format to fluctuate with transfer issues. One moment the image is fine, the next it is flaring and fading as if someone was adjusting the hue and saturation settings. Still, when not working the paint box, this movie looks pretty good. On the sonic side, there is nothing unusual. Since we have to wait until well into the movie before anything anxiety causing occurs, there is very little aural trickery to be had here. Once the spooks speak, we get a little immersive action. In another emblematic move, Artisan releases this Legend without a single packaging-provoking extra. It would have been nice to hear how Gang approached a more "accurate" version of Irving's story in either a commentary track or interview. Equally enticing would be the prospect of hearing Carver explain his acting choices and the challenges of living up to the legend of Ichabod Crane. Again, there is no such insight to be found here.
While they've tried to remain loyal to one of the founding fathers of American short fiction, this languid Legend of Sleepy Hollow is destined to be a student study aid or testing crib sheet, an excuse to avoid instead of an enticement to explore classic literature.
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