Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Christopher Walken, Miranda Richardson
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Trailers, Photo Gallery

With every new release of a movie by cult director Tim Burton, viewers can rest assured that the vision they are presented with in each particular film is a rather unique one, no matter how familiar the thematic itself may be. Burton managed to flesh out a live action Batman like no other. He created a memorable spoof of the 50 science fiction films in "Mars Attacks!" that is almost more authentic than the movies in question themselves. With "A Nightmare Before Christmas" he took claymation to new, and extreme visual heights, and with "Ed Wood" he shot a black and white movie when most movie goers weren’t even aware that such a thing still existed. Tim Burton is a man of visions and of very unique visions at that. It is hardly surprising that the former Disney animator has a loyal following of fans who expect nothing than the extraordinary with every new movie.
"Sleepy Hollow" was Burton’s take on the classic American fairy tale of the Headless Horseman by Washington Irving and as expected it turned out as no other version of the story you had ever seen.

Horrible crimes are happening in the small upstate-New York town of Sleepy Hollow. People are killed, beheaded and their heads remain missing. While the citizens of Sleepy Hollow believe in the myth of the Headless Horseman who comes at night as part of a curse, Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), an eccentric police investigator from New York, is not so sure of that. A scholar of science, he is of the firm believe there is a very human explanation behind the headless horseman… until he gets face to face with the mythical, blade-wielding creature himself.

Determined to find out the truth, Ichabod begins to go through all the possible explanations he can find, but on every corner the supernatural lurks. From his host, to a strange hermit in the woods, all the way to Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), a mysterious young girl he falls in love with, it appears the horseman is indeed a figment of the supernatural. As he is trying to unravel the mysteries and myths of Sleepy Hollow many people lose their heads and it appears even Ichabod Crane is powerless against the terror that comes from within the woods.

What strikes one remarkable immediately when watching "Sleepy Hollow is the film’s look. A fan of classic Hammer horror films, Tim Burton went to great lengths to achieve the same kind of romanticized gothic look for his movie. Beautifully framed. lit and composed, the images we get to see resemble paintings in their artistic quality. Wafting fog, interspersed by stings of light, flickering fingers of lightning and thunder define the movie and give Burton plenty of atmospheric elements to work with. The images are dark, ominous and foreboding, yet somehow friendly, with a color palette that is highly desaturated, conjuring up the same grayish, pastel look that can be found in countless productions of the famed British Hammer Studios. But the resemblance doesn’t end there. The skillful use of the camera conjures up vivid memories of Terence Fisher’s work on films like "Dracula", or "The Hound Of The Baskervilles." Simple, yet daring at times, and visually eloquent, Burton uses the camera not only to tell the story, but also to lure viewers into the mystery. More than once you practically expect Christopher Lee – who incidentally also plays a small part in the movie – stepping out of the fog as the fanged vampire he became famous for, that’s how faithfully the movie manages to recreate the atmosphere of the Hammer classics. The homage is perfect and never feels like a copy, since Burton’s own visual vocabulary gives the entire movie the feel of an art book come to life.

To amplify the stylized visual style, Burton has also gathered a cast that is able to pull of an acting style that is as mysterious as the story. Cliched and simplified, the characters in the movie are all too familiar and it is only Ichabod who brings rationality into the town. Perfectly played by Johnny Depp, Ichabod has the perfect mix of arrogance, weakness and wits that keep him alive. Other memorable performances includes appearances by Christopher Walken, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones and a great number of other familiar faces.

Paramount Home Video is presenting Tim Burton’s retelling of "Sleepy Hollow" in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer in the movie’s theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio. As expected, the transfer is very clean and does not show any signs of print damage, speckles or other blemishes. With a high level of detail, the transfer on this DVD manages to capture even the smallest details in the film’s beautiful production design. The blacks in the presentation are deep, yet always maintain a good level of detail, making shadows penetrable and even in the darkest clothing, the linings are visible. The highlights are balanced and never appear overexposed, giving the film the harsh look Burton and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki arduously designed. The DVD also perfectly reproduces the highly desaturated look of the movie that renders many colors in pale hues and tinges, yet produces stark reds that leap off the screen. The film has a very dark visual design with highlights carrying the eye at any given time and deep shadows cloaking many parts of the image in many shots. Without any visible compression artifacts, the DVD pays full tribute to Burton’s effort, and fully restores every bit of detail no matter how challenging the image material may be. The DVD gives "Sleepy Hollow" a beautiful appearance that is of substantially higher quality than that of the show print I saw in theaters.

"Sleepy Hollow" comes with a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track, as well as English and French <$DS,Dolby Surround> tracks. While these Dolby Surround tracks are neat and tight, the <$5.1,5.1 mix> is much livelier and expansive, emphasizing the often ethereal quality of Burton’s imagery. With a solid bas extension, the track exhibits a good low end that is perfect for some of the pulse-pounding scenes, while the high end is always clear and without sibilance or distortion. Although the soundtrack makes good use of the surround channels, they are mostly used in a rather way to emphasize the ambiance of any given scene. While there are a great many effects like the swooshing blades, for the majority, the mix is deliberately restrained.
Danny Elfman, long-time collaborator of Tim Burton, has written the score for "Sleepy Hollow" and the world should be thankful for that. No one manages to create whimsical, almost playful themes with ominous dark undertones as Elfman does, and he pulls all the stops for this movie. Arranging the deepest basses with sparkling high notes, Elfman is a master of musical contrast, a trait that perfectly matches Burton’s own wicked take on things. The musical score is presented in an impressive mix on this DVD that creates a very wide sound stage with good basses and good surround integration.

"Sleepy Hollow" contains an <$commentary,audio commentary> by director Tim Burton. Although not disappointing, it is obvious that the good-humored Burton is not a man of big talk, but rather of visions. The commentary is informative in terms of the production itself, but Burton remains rather vague about many aspects of the film, most notably his own unique approach to the material. With many pauses between comments the commentary certainly answers a number of questions and fills in some information, but I personally found many questions I am personally most interested in, unanswered.

Apart from the commentary, a number of other supplements can be found on the disc. Paramount has added an exclusive "Behind The Scenes" documentary. Running 30-minutes, the documentary takes you behind the scenes of the production with great footage form the set, as well as interviews with cast and crew members. Apart from covering the movie’s principal photography, the documentary also takes a good look at the special effects in the film, taking you into the workshop of the model makers who were entrusted with bringing the gruesome deaths to life. (Was that an oxymoron, or what?) Don’t miss the documentary. It is a valuable addition to the release that contains great information and anecdotes. Combined with a 10-minute section of cast and crew interviews that is also found on the disc, you will get a very good idea for what the production of "Sleepy Hollow" was all about.
The disc also contains theatrical trailers and teaser spots, as well as cast and crew biographies and a photo gallery with selected production stills.

"Sleepy Hollow" makes you wonder how many masterpieces one director can create. It is a visionary film that breaks with conventions and brings movie magic to new heights. Masterfully told and photographed, "Sleepy Hollow" is another entry in Burton’s seemingly endless array of flawless and memorable movies and his background as an artist is evident in every one of the film’s frames. Featuring his very own signature and tasteful eye, "Sleepy Hollow" is an instant classic that screams imagination, visions, style and skill. Paramount Home Video has created a flawless DVD for this film, a DVD that not only presents but enhances the experience of the movie. With a picture quality that is better than the film print itself and extras that are exciting and informative, this DVD is what all Tim Burton fans have been waiting for.