Having been a diehard horror buff ever since I was a kid, it is needless to say that I was eagerly awaiting Tim Burton's 'Sleepy Hollow' before its theatrical release in 1998. Coming off such audacious blockbusters as 'Beetlejuice,' the 'Batman' films and 'Edward Scissorhands,' anticipation was high for Burton's first out-and-out horror film. What a perfect fit for the unique and daring auteur -- is there a literary story better suited to Burton's singular visual style than the tale of the Headless Horseman? 'Sleepy Hollow' seemed like that rare dream project where all the elements would fit together perfectly like a puzzle, the kind of film that you just couldn't see failing.
Alas, I and many others were a bit disappointed in 'Sleepy Hollow.' In fact, I haven't even seen the film since 1998, so underwhelmed I was with it. Not that I remember it being a bad film -- even Burton's biggest failures are far more interesting than the average Hollywood hack's best work -- it just didn't deliver on my (probably inflated) expectations. But that's what excited me about watching the film again as it hit the next-gen formats. Sometimes, free of the burden of anticipation, a renewed look at a film can inspire a whole new response. Though I can't say this fresh viewing of 'Sleepy Hollow' has radically changed my opinion, it does hold up better than I expected and it's never anything less than entertaining.
I won't spoil the plot of 'Sleepy Hollow,' as Burton and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker take great liberties with the original short story by Washington Irving. Suffice to say it is a surprisingly convoluted narrative -- this is no mere two-hour mood piece. We get an overload of backstory, a multitude of characters, a romantic subplot, political intrigue and even some social commentary. Unfortunately, what Burton and Walker likely expected would be a pleasing expansion of the original short story instead becomes 'Sleepy Hollow's weakest attribute -- there is so much business going on plotwise that it becomes far too overwhelming and we soon lose interest. Worse, it also detracts from the Headless Horseman himself, because when you see too much behind the face of evil it takes away the fear.
'Sleepy Hollow' remains notable, however, for many reasons. In hindsight, its casting is prescient. Though Johnny Depp is now a bona fide A-list star who can open a film with one hand tied behind his back (look no further than the latest 'Pirates of the Caribbean' for proof of that), back in 1998 he still was considered a somewhat oddball, non-commercial actor. Burton had to push the studio hard to cast him as the lead in 'Sleepy Hollow,' and his romantic pairing with Christina Ricci (then still considered a poor woman's Winona Ryder) raised eyebrows as unconventional to say the least for a mainstream, big-budget Hollywood event picture. Watching the film again, I regret to say that I'm inclined to agree. Depp plays his Icabod Crane as a bumbling, timid, fearful man. He gets a few laughs, but it sometimes feels stagey and theatrical -- and oddly his nervousness didn't enhance my fear, it only kept me at a distance because of his eccentricities. And Ricci gives one of her weaker performances, with often listless line readings and generating little genuine chemistry with Depp.
Still, 'Sleepy Hollow' is another visual tour de force from Burton. I took even more pleasure this time around soaking in its gorgeous cinematography and production design. Inspired in equal parts by classic illustration, animation and the EC Comics and Hammer horror films Burton grew up on as a kid, 'Sleepy Hollow' looks elegant, moody, atmospheric and creepy. Almost black and white in his use of color (aside from all that flowing crimson, of course), Burton has made the most stately of horror films. Granted, that doesn't help the film in terms of the scare factor, but like Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining,' 'Sleepy Hollow' is really more of an art film than a commercial horror show. And for that, I can only give it props -- Burton managed to once again turn his own personal tastes and idiosyncrasies into a $100 million-grossing, mainstream hit. What other artists in Hollywood can say the same? Very few.
As I noted in my review of the HD DVD version of 'Sleepy Hollow,' the film is hardly "picture perfect" source material. It's is a very grainy image, with the majority of the film veiled by a thin veneer of jumping, alive movement. Just check out the opening credits -- the film has been so drained of color as to almost be black and white, contrast flattened, and dark areas fall off into black like a steep flick. (All that fog doesn't help, either.) It looks very moody and atmospheric, but also rather dirty and gritty. Personally, I enjoyed the retro feel, but have to admit that it does not lend itself to the kind of truly three-dimensional picture that immediately springs to mind when you think of high-def.
That said, technically this 1.85:1 widescreen, 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer is on par with the HD DVD version. (Not necessarily a good thing, depending on your opinion). On the few colors that do appear vibrant and saturated, saturation is fairly stable (though there is some wavering) and occasionally fuzzy. Contrast also exhibits noticeable fluctuation in density and clarity. Detail overall is superior to the standard DVD release, and fine subtleties are more apparent, everything from textures on the film's lavish costumes to etchings in the bark of twisted trees. As for noise, which has been a problem on Blu-ray releases, it is hard to judge here. This picture looked just as busy as the HD DVD, but when you're dealing with source material as problematic as this, it is to be expected. Again, 'Sleepy Hollow' just doesn't have the sense of depth of some of the most revelatory high-def transfers I've seen, but given the source material it could have been far worse.
Going the route Warner and Universal have taken with their Blu-ray releases, Paramount is offers Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks (encoded at 640kbps) on their titles. The studio has also thrown in an optional DTS track for good measure, though given the superior bitrate on the Dolby Digital track, it's mostly a token.
Identical to its HD DVD, Dolby Digital-Plus counterpart (which is also encoded at 640kbps), 'Sleepy Hollow' on Blu-ray sounds rather good. Frequency response is solid across the board, with clean highs and warm midrange. Low bass is the real standout, however, especially with consistent and repetitive sounds, such as the stampeding of horse hooves and the percussive moments of Danny Elfman's score.
Unfortunately, the film's sound design is not as enveloping as I remember it in the theater, but I guess a lot has changed in terms of technology over the past seven years. The mix really is quite front heavy, with the majority of sounds emanating from the front three speakers only. The rears are mostly employed for bleed and a few discrete effects, but nothing all that pronounced. The score is also largely confined to the front soundstage. Imaging, when it does come into play for pans between channels, is fairly seamless. Technically, 'Sleepy Hollow' sounds just fine, but it could have been livelier had Paramount sprung for an uncompressed or lossless audio remaster. (Let's hope the studio begins to embrace the PCM, Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD formats soon.)
Thankfully, Paramount has not chintzed out with its first Blu-ray releases and is including the same extras as the HD DVD and standard-def DVD versions. Of course, on a title like 'Sleepy Hollow,' that means all of the supplements here are already familiar to fans of the film. So this package will best be enjoyed by those who ever never seen 'Sleepy Hollow' before on disc.
It's interesting. I remember back in 2000 when this disc came out, just getting a commentary and a couple of featurettes on a DVD seemed like a big deal. Today, of course, the supplements here are totally standard. Still, they are not bad, and even though the featurettes are mostly promotional, they're much better than this usual type of EPK stuff. The 29-minute "Behind 'Sleepy Hollow'" is actually an above-average making-of. Yes, the breathless narration, on-set interviews and behind-the-scenes footage is all there, but it is quite comprehensive. The whole arc of the production is covered, from its conception to developed to the on-set production. We also get some nice footage of the film's various effects (a nicely done combination of live action and CGI) and scoring sessions. The 10-minute "Reflections on 'Sleepy Hollow'" is more traditional, basically an assemblage of interviews conducted during the film's press junket. All of the main cast and crew are present, including Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, and a bit of extra behind-the-scenes footage is also edited into the mix to keep the pace snappy. Nothing exceptional, but still worth watching if you're into the movie.
The other major extra is Tim Burton's screen-specific audio commentary. I remember this being a big deal back in 1999, as Burton had never really contributed much at the time to the laserdisc and DVD releases of his films. Of course, Burton is legendary for being a somewhat inarticulate speaker (apparently, his mumbling is a big joke on his sets), but he acquits himself nicely here. Personally, I do feel that having thrown some additional cast and crew into the mix would have helped kept the pace going a bit, but Burton offers plenty of illumination on his filmmaking approach. I also enjoyed his intelligent insight into the film's not-always-apparent themes -- though I don't think everything he intended showed up on screen (Burton's hoped for contrasts between Depp's over-intellectualizing Icabod Crane and the anarchist Headless Horseman never really came through for me). Still, for once here's a commentary that genuinely increased my appreciation for the movie. Definitely a must-listen for Burton fans.
Rounding out the extras are the film's theatrical teaser and trailer, both in widescreen.
I don't think 'Sleepy Hollow' is Tim Burton's best film, but it is moody and gory and a fine choice to watch this Halloween. This Blu-ray release, though, is a bit like its HD DVD counterpart -- a tad disappointing, if only because the source material does not have the crystal-clear look of today's computer-perfected big-budget action movies. But we still get a good transfer all things considered, plus some nice extras. Worth a look, and at least a rental.