The disastrous "Mars Attacks!" raised fears that Tim Burton had lost his touch as a twisted fantasist. Three years later, the director retreats to Grand Guignol turf with "Sleepy Hollow," an agreeably macabre fable that's no less enjoyable for its lack of ambition. It's the sort of picture the cemetery-minded Burton can turn out in his sleep, but a holding pattern that's still worth watching.
Few tales are better suited to the Burton treatment than the legend of the Headless Horseman. Working with screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, he fleshes out the story by reimagining Ichabod Crane (a schoolteacher in Washington Irving's story) as a no-nonsense constable investigating some gruesome murders in the small village of Sleepy Hollow. Its citizens are expiring one by one, their heads separated from their bodies by an unseen attacker.
Crane assumes that the slaughter is the work of a human assailant out to avenge an injustice or cover up a secret in a tightly knit community. The longer he lingers in Sleepy Hollow, however, the more he believes its lore that the killer is the decapitated ghost of a Hessian who once terrorized the countryside.
Leaving nothing to chance, Burton populates his cast with reliable cronies. Johnny Depp ("Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood") gives Crane a stiff gait and exaggerated English accent that parody the onscreen stereotype of the gentleman. He's a cousin to Keanu Reeves' Jonathan Harker in "Bram Stoker's Dracula," but Depp is intentionally funny.
Christopher Walken ("Batman Returns") has a wordless cameo as the Horseman (in a prebeheading flashback), and Jeffrey Jones ("Beetlejuice," "Ed Wood") and Michael Gough (the Batman series' Alfred) both play village elders.
Even the newcomers seem like familiar faces. Christina Ricci -- whose "Addams Family" movies were but a screen test for a Burton project -- is Katrina Van Tassel, Crane's mysterious love interest. Christopher Lee's appearance as the burgomaster who assigns Crane to the case serves the same function as Vincent Price's turn in "Scissorhands": legitimizing Burton's nightmares by associating them with monsters of old.
"Sleepy Hollow" returns the favor by paying homage to Hammer Films, the British production house that brought Lee's "Dracula" to fame in the 1950s and 1960s. Like the Hammer classics, Burton's latest is awash in impossibly red blood that spurts with slapstick frequency. And the intrepid Crane is a winking extension of that studio's stable of fearless vampire killers.
Visually, Burton learned Hammer's lessons long ago. His soundstage forests look better than real exteriors ever could, and his matte paintings fix "Sleepy Hollow" in a twilight of prerain mistiness. (Washington Irving, meet Thomas Kinkade.)
Pacing, as always, is the director's Achilles' heel. Dialogue scenes often go on longer than the plot requires, then spill into brief, anticlimactic action sequences. Still, the scattershot approach is more fun than the deadening uniformity of George Lucas, and Burton actually shows signs of an improved story sense. For once, he follows a mystery through to its conclusion, never abandoning it to indulge in extraneous wackiness.
Other directors might not count the belated learning of that basic lesson as progress. But returning to your roots after attempting to "branch out" with a Martian invasion is pretty ludicrous on its face. We love Burton for his style, not his range. "Sleepy Hollow" has style in spades, no matter how often we've seen it before.