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Master storyteller Tim Burton (Batman, Edward Scissorhands) 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.
For more about Sleepy Hollow and the Sleepy Hollow Blu-ray release, see Sleepy Hollow Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on June 30, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Michael Gough
Director: Tim Burton
» See full cast & crew
Sleepy Hollow Blu-ray Review
"Their heads weren't found severed. Their heads were not found at all."
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, June 30, 2009
As a young country, founded when industry and modern science were just taking hold, America is unsurprisingly light on homegrown fairy tales. Our mythology is seen not in a dark medieval past, but in the tall-tale feats of westward expansion, and heard in the steady drum of industrial progress. The closest genre we have to a European folk story aesthetic is the New England gothic tale, post-puritan fever dreams penned by the likes of Hawthorne, Irving, and Poe, combining haunted Old World mystery with the frontiersman's sense of discovery rampant in the newly minted Americas. Washington Irving, America's first real Man of Letters, gave us two memorable examples, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and the latter has wormed its way indelibly into our pop consciousness, thanks in large part to Disney's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It's the quintessential Halloween story, fueled by spectral speculation, giddy horror, and a great big flaming pumpkin thrown in to boot. It came as little surprise then when Tim Burton—unruly-haired master of the macabre—decided to direct a live-action adaptation of Sleepy Hollow, based on a violent and divergent script by Se7en scribe Andrew Kevin Walker. Ichabod Crane is easily Burton's bumbling and eccentric analog, and after the successes of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, it was clear that Sleepy Hollow would continue the director's grimly comedic oeuvre.
Irving's original tale is a brief sketch, and writer Andrew Kevin Walker expands the 20-odd-page yarn into a sprawling, gothic who-dunnit. As the story is set in the late-18th century, an era when science and reason first began to quarrel with magic and faith, Walker makes a few key changes. Whereas Ichabod Crane was once a superstitious schoolteacher, given to flights of fancy, the Ichabod of Burton's Sleepy Hollow is a constable, a primitive forensic pathologist who is sent to the tired town to investigate three suspicious deaths. It's basically CSI: Salem (that one's free, CBS), and Johnny Depp plays the role of detective with a squeamish, fluttering timorousness, fainting no less than six times during the film. Despite his delicate demeanor, Ichabod is a man of science, and he's got a doctor's satchel that's a steampunk fan's wet dream, filled with overly complex brass instruments and bug-eyed goggles with telescoping lenses. His investigations send the town elders into a conspiratorial tizzy—they're complicit in something, though we're not sure what—and meanwhile, bodies continue to be found, sans heads. Ichabod is confident that science will solve the case, until, that is, he comes face to… well, not face, with the headless Hessian horseman (Christopher Walken), a former mercenary who governs the night from his fierce steed, questing for his own missing head and loping off others' in revenge.
If I have one complaint about Sleepy Hollow it's that the film relies much too heavily on exposition to clarify the finer points of the plot. Just as we, the audience, start to put together the pieces of the mystery, we get what amounts to a five-minute back-story that does all the thinking for us. One of the film's themes is Ichabod's ability to widen the scope of his deductive reasoning to include the supernatural, but Sleepy Hollow seems to have little faith in the mental mechanics of its audience. The film is a carefully wrought puzzler until the climax, when it blatantly spells out for us a "well, I hadn't really thought of that, but yeah, that totally makes sense" kind of solution. Washington Irving's original tale leaves plenty of ambiguities for the reader to mull over, and Sleepy Hollow would have a bit more lasting power if it weren't so cut and dry. The expository language also carries over into much of the dialogue, which is stiff at times, comprised of stately, fairy tale utterances that would work well in an 18th century novel but seem out of place in such a vivid, cinematic story. This is especially apparent in Christina Ricci's lines, which give her Katrina Van Tassel character a remoteness that does little to endear her to anyone but Ichabod Crane.
That's just my cold, critical response though, and in reality, Sleepy Hollow gets me as wound up and giggly as a grade-schooler on a post-Trick or Treat sugar binge. The film owes its atmosphere to many Hammer Films productions and the Universal horror flicks of yore—complete with stylized sets and moody, fog-heavy scenery—but Burton injects the old forms with his characteristic dark humor and a level of violence that left me wincing and smiling simultaneously. There are, count them, eighteen decapitations in Sleepy Hollow, as the Headless Horseman slices and dices with seemingly indiscriminate glee. Cleanly cauterized heads roll, spin, and flip, and each slaying outdoes the last for sheer shock and ingenuity.
None of this would matter if Burton hadn't created such a cohesive fairy tale world. The dream- like sets, the period costuming, and the cast—with some exceptions—all align to create a creaky and haunting storybook experience. Just look at the actors who play the town elders. Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, and Richard Griffiths all have such distinctive, almost caricatured faces. Griffiths, in particular, as a roly-poly magistrate, is straight out of an illustration. Tim Burton's films are unmistakably his and the genius, so to speak, is always in the details. From the scarecrows and pumpkins, to the wintry and surreal color palette, Burton has created a singular visual language that has only grown and evolved with each new film he's helmed.
Sleepy Hollow Blu-ray, Video Quality
Sleepy Hollow's 1080p MPEG-2 transfer finds the town immersed in a swirling layer of grain that covers every surface, and while this sometimes lends to the early horror film atmosphere, it does often detract from detail and overall sharpness. In one close-up of Christina Ricci, the grain—perhaps coupled with digital noise; it's honestly hard to tell—made it difficult to make out the borders of her lips. The plentiful tree limbs are also a good crispness test, and the film has inconsistent levels of sharpness that, while noticeably better than the DVD, don't exactly sing Blu-ray's praises. Despite the sometimes-soft appearance, I still found myself enjoying the grit of the film, as it does enhance the oppressive gloom that fills the sullen vale of Sleepy Hollow.
The film's most defining and tone-setting characteristic, however, is its extremely stylized color scheme. Grays and browns rule the desaturated image, while red accents—the rose on Katrina's cloak, the cardinal, and of course, the ample blood—burst forth vividly. Skin tones, in allegiance with Burton's gothic sensibilities, are pearly and luminescent. Black levels do crush detail in darker scenes, but it's hard to tell how much of this is transfer-related, and how much is due to intent. As a final thought, while it may have been state-of-the-art for its day, Sleepy Hollow's CGI doesn't hold up against more modern offerings, and the film looks best when it confines itself to practical effects.
Sleepy Hollow Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Fortunately for you readers, Sleepy Hollow's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is neither sleepy nor hollow, and I don't feel the slightest need to resort to any unfunny puns. The mix is clean and clear, with an open, expressive mid-range and detailed highs. Gunshots, horse hooves, and thunder all have sufficient low-end thud, though a slight boost in bass prowess could give the track some added dimensionality. Danny Elfman's commanding score assaults from all sides, with bells that toll ominously and brash horns that herald evil's presence. Many scenes features spooky sound-design, like the covered bridge sequence, and there some well-placed instances of sound panning and image tracking, but this is a largely front-bolstered track, and the rear channels are mostly confined to score and leftover ambience. If Paramount ever goes for a double-dip with Sleepy Hollow, I would be interested in hearing if a lossless track would improve the film's dynamic range.
Sleepy Hollow Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Fans who own the DVD will be immediately familiar with the informative, if somewhat dated bonus features here.
Sleepy Hollow: Behind the Legend (SD, 30:03)
While I'm no advocate of severing talking head, EPK featurettes from discs altogether, I propose we at least eviscerate the narrators who lend their over-enthusiastic voices to the supplements. Still, for most viewers in 1999, any bonus features were appreciated, and this behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Sleepy Hollow is better than most. "Behind the Legend" details nearly every element of the film's production, from the amazing set design of the Western Woods (on one of the largest sound stages ever created) to the elaborate carriage chase scene, which took three weeks to film. We also get to see the FX people ply their trades, both practically, and with some now-antiquated CGI. Despite the name however, this bonus feature doesn't really devote any time to the actual legend itself.
Reflections on Sleepy Hollow (SD, 11:26)
Culled from press interviews around the time of the film's release, "Reflections" features director Tim Burton and many of the cast reminiscing about the creation of Sleepy Hollow. It's pretty average stuff, but I was interesting in hearing about how Depp initially wanted Ichabod to look much more extreme—longer nose and fingers, big ears—and idea that was vetoed by Burton early on.
Commentary by Director Tim Burton
If you've ever watched a behind-the-scenes special with Tim Burton, you'll know he's fiercely intelligent, eccentric, but not quite the most articulate when it comes to expressing his ideas in verbal form. I was surprised, then, by this informative track, which has Burton reeling off little anecdotes (one about the Queen's hunting party, no less!) and talking in detail about small facets of the film's production. A must-listen for Burton fans.
Teaser Trailer (1080p, 2:17)
Theatrical Trailer (1080p, 2:55)
Sleepy Hollow Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Sleepy Hollow gets major points in my book simply for being an adaptation of American folklore. Where are the film versions of "Young Goodman Brown" or "The Devil and Tom Walker"? There's a vast, untapped storytelling field in the American Gothic, and I would love to see Tim Burton, or any other director really, take a stab at some of the lesser-known stories. Sleepy Hollow is also one of the few period horror films, which makes it an instant addition to my annual, pre-Halloween, all-October movie-thon. While this Blu-ray release isn't the most spectacular —the picture quality's not quite up to our modern, sharp as a tack, clear as an azure sky of deepest summer expectations—I still recommend Sleepy Hollow as an All Hallows Eve treat, even if it does collect dust through the rest of the year.
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