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Headless Horseplay 

Sleepy Hollow (R)
Paramount

Director Tim Burton's predictably warped version of the Washington Irving classic has been roundly pounded by critics for being too black and too gory and for simplistic plotting. What exactly were they expecting? Burton, after all, is the king of dark, a filmmaker who exults in shades of gray and the intersection of humanity with other-worldly souls. That the tale of the headless horseman isn't exactly epic material shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Burton handles it as well as anyone could, and better than most.

In Burton's hands, the tiny Hudson River Valley town of Sleepy Hollow becomes a mythical place, where gnarled trees silhouetted against a foggy background speak volumes.

Johnny Depp is Ichabod Crane, the investigator from New York City who travels to Sleepy Hollow to solve the mystery of a string of murders. Shortly after his arrival, he hears the legend of the headless horseman, the ghostly figure the townspeople agree is the murderer. A man of modern science, Crane at first resists the idea that a phantom could rise from the dead and commit murder, but before long, he witnesses one of the horseman's attacks firsthand.

Depp brings a humorous finickiness to the character of Crane. He is prissy, prim and immaculate, and he doesn't take well to the sight of gore. He faints at the sight of blood and heads rolling, and gets the heebie-jeebies over witnessing anything he cannot rationally explain. But Crane's transformation to action hero, when he is caught at the end of the film in a frantic chase scene with the horseman, is palatable, too. Depp moves from prude to swashbuckler with real movie-star grace and charisma, not an easy task.

Crane's love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of the town's wealthiest and most powerful citizen, is played with understated charm by Christina Ricci. She and Depp look like big brother and little sister with the ivory skin and dark eyes, and they play off each other well. Ricci's Katrina is something of a mystery to Crane, dabbling in witchcraft and spells just enough to raise his and our level of suspicion.

Miranda Richardson is wild and wicked as Katrina's sexy stepmother, siren of the horseman. And the horseman himself -- massive and shrouded in black -- proves to be a striking central focus of the film, despite his missing head.

Burton revels in special effect, and his wild creation, the tree of the dead, is a memorable cinematic marvel -- the horseman's portal from earth to hell and back, and a kind of other-worldy footlocker where he stores the heads of his prey. Burton's Sleepy Hollow should have been released for Halloween instead of Thanksgiving, and will, no doubt, prove to be a video classic come Oct. 31 in years to come.

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