Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Paramount, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, single side-dual layer, 19 chapters, rated R, 105 min., $29.99, street date 5/23/2000.
Academy Awards: Won for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. Nominated for Best Cinematography, Costume Design, 2000.
Directed by Tim Burton. Starring : Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Casper Van Dien, Mark Pickering, Michael Gough, Jeffrey Jones, Ian McDiarmid.
Master storyteller Tim Burton weaves an eerie, enchanting version of this classic tale of horror. Johnny Depp is Ichabod Crane, an eccentric investigator determined to stop the murderous Headless Horseman. Christina Ricci is Katrina Van Tassel, the beautiful and mysterious girl with secret ties to the supernatural terror.
Looking back, I suppose the film that really put me in the bag for Tim Burton was 1990's Edward Scissorhands. This was not the first Burton picture I enjoyed, and it never occupied the prime status as my favorite Burton movie; prior to ES, I'd loved 1989's Batman and 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure, efforts that remain well above ES on my personal favorites list.
So what makes ES so special in my memory? It was the one that demonstrated to me the pure power of his talent. With both Pee-wee and Batman, I could ascribe my fondness for those films to factors other than the director. After all, I'd loved both Pee-wee and Batman in incarnations other than celluloid, so Burton's direction did not seem to be the prime reason for my affection toward those pictures.
The same could not be said for Scissorhands. While the story itself clearly owed debts to other sources, it nonetheless was an original take on the theme and I found it thoroughly enchanting and moving. Unfortunately, future viewings didn't hold up quite as well, and while I still think ES was a fine film, it didn't maintain such a strong hold on my heart. Nonetheless, the lasting impression was made: Tim Burton clearly was an absolutely terrific director, and from that point on, I'd be there for anything the man released.
Burton's 1990s output seemed pretty spotty but generally positive. I loved Batman Returns, which I find the best of the series (though I have a more sentimental affection for Batman, since I went absolutely nuts for it back in 1989), and I initially adored 1996's Mars Attacks!, but as with ES, my opinion of it became less enthusiastic upon subsequent viewings; I still really liked the film, but it wasn't as fantastic as I initially believed. 1994's Ed Wood was the least compelling of the bunch. Actually, it's the only Burton film I've only seen once; I thought the movie was good but I just never felt terribly compelled to watch it again.
Although I hadn't maintained a consistently enthusiastic opinion of a Burton movie since Batman Returns, I still greeted each new release with eager anticipation, and 1999's Sleepy Hollow was no exception. If anything, my expectations may have been higher than usual since this fantasy/horror story appeared to fit Burton's wickedly dark and macabre style; if anybody could do the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman justice, it'd be Burton.
For the most part, this assessment seemed correct, as Sleepy Hollow offers a pretty fun and exciting view of the old Washington Irving story. I haven't read the original tale, but I get the feeling it doesn't have a whole lot in common with the film. Although that may trouble some, I doesn't bother me in the least; I don't go to see movies that are perfect adaptations of other works. As far as I'm concerned, filmmakers can take as little or as much from the source materials as they like, as long as the movie offers an interesting experience.
And in that regard, Sleepy Hollow definitely succeeds. Actually, I enjoyed the movie more the second time through just because I could watch it without the interference of my expectations. Obviously I go into Burton's films with high hopes, and in that regard, even the best pictures can seem less than terrific. I liked SH when I saw it theatrically but it still seemed a bit disappointing. My second go-round didn't radically change my opinion, but I did definitely enjoy the experience.
I was rather surprised at how well Burton got my adrenaline rushing. The film's action scenes are definitely its strong point, as they are almost all extremely well-executed and quite exciting; the visual realm remains Burton's primary strength and he imbues them with a terrific sense of kinetic excitement. I honestly felt pleasantly drained at the end of the movie; the thrilling pace wore me out!
As is typical for a Burton effort, the visual style seems extraordinarily well-developed. During Burton's audio commentary, I discovered that most of the film was shot on indoor sets, which I found astonishing; it so strongly looks like a real place that I couldn't believe so much of it takes place under cover. Burton's Sleepy Hollow becomes a wonderfully foreboding and creepy place; the appearance of the burg adds tremendously to the spooky tone.
Probably the film's biggest weakness comes from its characters, which is typical of Burton's work. As we discovered during the Batman pictures, he seems to work best with the villains, and since SH's baddie offers little personality - he's mainly just a head-lopping machine - he doesn't have much room with which to work. As such, Burton has to focus on either our hero Crane (Johnny Depp) or the more ambiguous townsfolk; those parts are really seen as ethically vague for the most part, since the movie proceeds as a mystery and none can be portrayed as strongly good or bad.
As played by Depp, Crane is a clever but awkward character, one who seems rather eccentric. Depp appears just fine in the role, though he can be a bit mannered and stilted. Crane and the other characters really aren't supposed to be more than cartoons, though, so Depp seems just fine in the part; he makes Crane appropriately eccentric.
Probably SH's main disappointment comes from Christina Ricci's dull turn as love interest Katrina Van Tassel. Like the rest of the town's inhabitants, Katrina needs to remain somewhat morally ambiguous - we have to at least mildly suspect she may be wicked - but really, she's supposed to be one of the nicer personalities. Ricci thrives in darker roles - after all, she made her name through her wonderfully droll performance as Wednesday in The Addams Family - and she seems rather tentative and flat in this more traditional kind of leading lady sort of part. I can't say Ricci's bad in the role, but she's just something of a non-entity. Katrina needs to be more mysterious; she makes the character seem awfully bland, and that doesn't help the film. Maybe the blond hair freaked her out.
At least a fine supporting cast of solid actors such as Jeffrey Jones, Miranda Richardson, and Michael Gough nicely round out the film. We also find a reunion of sorts for The Phantom Menace's Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious and Darth Maul, as both Ian McDiarmid and Ray Park appear here. (McDiarmid plays the town's doctor while Park appears as the Headless Horseman; Christopher Walken does the scenes of the Horseman with his noggin attached.) I don't know if this reunion is coincidental or not, but I seriously doubt it was done in any attempt to link the characters, as there's no way the casual film-goer would know that Darth Maul and the Headless Horseman are the same person; I'm sure many people recognized McDiarmid, but the only way to discern that Maul and HH are the same guy is to watch the credits. Still, it's a neat little footnote.
And Sleepy Hollow is a neat little film. It's not quite the classic I always expect from Tim Burton, but it's a thrilling and spooky effort that moves at a strong pace. As much as I love his work, Burton has yet to create a perfect film - even his best picture, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, has a couple of problems - and SH doesn't stand as the best of his pictures. Nonetheless, good Burton beats the best from the vast majority of other directors, so the movie offers a very interesting and entertaining experience.
Sleepy Hollow appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The movie provides one of the best-looking pictures I've seen recently; it's a virtually flawless affair.
Sharpness is virtually perfect from start to finish, with images that retain immense clarity and crispness and never yield the slightest hint of softness. I detected no instances of moiré effects or jagged edges, and even instances of artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV were extremely minimal. I saw no evidence of any print flaws either; if grain, speckles, scratches or other problems exist on this DVD, I couldn't find them.
As befits the grim subject matter, SH utilizes a rather limited palette; most of the movie is virtually monochromatic. Nonetheless, the subtle hues displayed - mainly browns and some reds - look lavish, and on the few occasions during which we see bright colors - mainly through Ichabod's flashbacks - they appear absolutely brilliant and lush. Black levels seem wonderfully deep and rich, and shadow detail was appropriately heavy without obscuring important information. I came extremely close to rating the picture of SH as an "A+" but didn't do so because I believe that to earn that grade, a film needs to offer a more demanding range of images. SH doesn't feature enough color to really push the limits of the picture, so it'll have to live with its "A", but it's a very high "A".
The movie's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack doesn't quite live up to its picture, but it's a fine mix nonetheless. The soundfield creates a strong atmosphere that really benefits the film. It's not heavy on directional effects and Danny Elfman's score really is what pushes the speakers through most of the movie, but we hear appropriate levels of activity in regard to the onscreen action as well. The score pumps through all five speakers for much of the film, and the forward channels offer a pretty nice soundstage. The rears mainly provide strong music and they also bolster the effects as well; split surround usage appeared fairly limited - mainly it gives us occasional horse gallops that have continued from the front - and I honestly think the range could have extended further, but the mix seems satisfying in any case.
The quality of the audio appears unimpeachable. Dialogue sounds warm and natural and never betrays any intelligibility problems. Elfman's score is bold and vibrant and kicks out some solid low end, which the effects are appropriately loud and realistic; there's no question the sterling audio boosted the power of the story. Because the mix seems a bit limited in scope, the soundtrack for Sleepy Hollow doesn't quite match up to the best of 1999, but it appears strong nonetheless.
Of all the major studios, Paramount have seemed most reluctant to offer consumers true special edition packages. That shouldn't come as a surprise, since they were the worst in that regard when it came to their laserdiscs. However, Paramount finally show some signs of life, and though Sleepy Hollow doesn't exactly pack in a ton of extras, we find enough supplemental features here to provide some useful information.
First up is an audio commentary from director Tim Burton. This is his second-ever track, assuming that he recorded his piece for Pee-wee's Big Adventure prior to this session. (I'm not positive that's the case, but I believe I read that chronology was accurate.) I'd had some concerns about Burton's style prior to the Pee-wee track - he doesn't seem to be the chattiest guy in the world - but those seemed unwarranted; he proved pleasant and engaging there. But he also had a partner, since Paul Reubens sat with him during the Pee-wee commentary. Would Burton seem as entertaining when on his own?
Short answer: nope. (Long answer: noooooooooooope.) Oh, the commentary doesn't completely lack interest; Burton tosses out enough information and relates a few good notes about his influences and what he tried to do to make it worth a listen. However, he just doesn't have a lot to say. Gaps abound in this track, and even when he talks, a fair amount of his statements are redundant; he often speaks of rather similar issues that regard the set. I liked hearing about that aspect of the film, but Burton covers the same territory a few times and not much new emerges along the way. Some artists can sit down with just a microphone and toss out solid details for two hours without assistance, but Burton doesn't seem to fall into that category; he needs some sort of interaction to draw him out and extract more interesting anecdotes. Burton's track offers enough compelling information to make it worth the effort, but overall it's a fairly dull affair.
More interesting is the 30-minute documentary called "Behind the Legend". This piece offers a very good view at the creation of the film. Yes, it's a relentlessly positive affair that clearly attempts mainly to promote the film, but it still provides a lot of cool details about the picture. We hear a lot of interview snippets from Burton, main cast members and crew, and we also see plenty of fun shots from the set. The special effects receive a strong focus, and I enjoyed the depictions of how many of these were achieved. It may be a promotional piece, but it's a strong one.
More video footage appears in "Reflections on Sleepy Hollow", a section that offers 11 minutes and 20 seconds of cast and crew interviews. Actually, the focus remains mainly on the actors, as the only crew member we find is Burton. The interview snippets are combined with a number of film scenes, but the latter aren't overwhelming, and we also find some fun shots from the set. Overall, this program provides a nice additional look at the film.
A few other features complete the DVD. A photo gallery provides 15 stills, all of which are publicity shots from the film and none of which are very interesting. However, the biographies for six of the actors seem quite well-executed and are easily above-average for that kind of extra. Finally, we get two trailers: the teaser and the theatrical ad. Both are quite good, though the former uses some quick editing to make the movie look like it comes from the Sixth Sense/Stir of Echoes school of creepy kids, which is not the case. Well, can't blame them for following that trend!
Sleepy Hollow doesn't approach Tim Burton's best work, but considerin g the body of great films he's produced, that's not surprising. In any case, it's a very fun and exciting movie that creates a thoroughly creepy atmosphere and really gets the viewer's adrenaline pumping. The DVD provides a virtually flawless picture plus very good sound and some nice supplements. Burton fans will be very pleased with this package, and those who enjoy wittily spooky fantasy/horror pictures should check it out as well.