Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Theatrical Teaser, Theatrical Trailer

Tim Burton's version of the American fairy tale of the Headless Horseman by Washington Irving, "Sleepy Hollow" is an atmospheric film, richly textured and carefully orchestrated. Of course, I was eager to see how this beautiful film would translate into high definition and when I got Paramount Home Entertainment's first slate of HD-DVD titles on my desk I knew immediately that "sleepy Hollow" would be the first one to check out.

Tim Burton, of course, is infamous for his quirky and extremely visual style and his radical departure from established formulas. 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 it paid homage to themselves. With "A Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Corpse Bride" 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.

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.

As pointed out in opening, "sleepy Hollow" is a very atmospheric film and it is its look that is most striking at first. 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.

So, here we have a high definition version of "Sleepy Hollow" now and I had high hopes for the film. I wasn't disappointed as the HD-DVD transfer marvelously restored the movie's look and more importantly reproduces the image in a truly film-like quality. In essence, the film looks exactly the way it looked in theaters – only a good bit cleaner and more stable. The transfer restores the movie's original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, of course, and is free of any speckles or other defects. In select shots there is grain evident but in this case it is clearly an artistic decision by the filmmakers and removing it would have been detrimental from the overall experience.
The transfer is very sharp and reproduces an immense amount of detail, adding a richness to the picture that was previously lost as even the smallest bit of information remain visible in the picture. With its deep blacks the images has very good visual depth and the muted color palette and harsh contrast of the film are perfectly brought to the screen. The highlights are balanced and never appear overexposed, giving the film the harsh high-contrast look that Burton and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki arduously designed. 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. Watching this film in its 1080i presentation on a 108p TV set I trul felt like watching a movie in a theater, that is how wonderfully authentic the experience was.

"Sleepy Hollow" comes with a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus audio track, as well as a DTS track and additional French and Spanish 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus tracks. The tracks are altogether very aggressive and dynamic. Maybe a bit too aggressive because oftentimes the difference between the swelling music working its way up to crescendo and the dialogues is a bit too big, resulting in extremely variances in volume. This is no movie that you can enjoy at low volume levels and hope to catch everything.
The tracks have a brutal bass extension that adds weight not only to the sound effects but also to Danny Elfman's heart-pounding score that often counterpoints high-register string sections with super-low horns. 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 and it is great to hear the results in wonderful clarity on these new audio tracks.

"Sleepy Hollow" contains a number of bonus materials, all of which are being refurbished form the previous DVD release. First off there is an 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 entitled "Reflections on Sleepy Hollow" 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 the movie's theatrical teaser and trailer also, and to my surprise Paramount actually added these trailers in high definition. This is a great move, I think, because not only does it make these trailer look so much better but it paths the way for more high definition supplements in the future.

"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 HD-DVD version for this film that truly gives a film-like appearance to the movie. Burton fans, clearly don't want to miss out on this release.