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 for this review, and on HD DVD no less as part of Paramount's inaugural wave of titles on the format. Sometimes, free of the burden of anticipation, a second look at a film can inspire a whole new response. Though I can't say this subsequent viewing of 'Sleepy Hollow' has radically changed my opinion of the film, 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.
Paramount has finally jumped into the HD DVD game, and it was a tough choice to decide which of their launches titles I would review first. I picked 'Sleepy Hollow' because it seemed a bit more challenging -- a recent if not brand-new film, it showcases Tim Burton's most unique visual sensibility to good effect and is a highly-stylized work that definitely gives even a high-def format a workout. And the results bear that out -- this is an unusual presentation that will likely disappoint some because it doesn't have the pristine quality of today's computer-enhanced pictures, but one I welcomed because it is so film-like.
Indeed, this is not "picture perfect" source material. 'Sleepy Hollow' is a very grainy film, with some shots covered in 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 has been flattened, and dark areas fall off into black steeply. (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 transfer (which, like all of Paramount's HD DVD releases, is encoded at 1080p) delivers the goods. Despite the graininess and lack of color, compression defects are not apparent. I noticed no chroma noise nor any pixelization or blocking. Color reproduction is stable, though again the print does suffer from wavering -- contrast and colors exhibit noticeable fluctuations in density and clarity. Detail overall is superior to the standard DVD release -- fine subtleties are more apparent, everything from textures on the film's lavish costumes to etchings in the bark of twisted trees. Again, 'Sleepy Hollow' just doesn't have the sense of depth of some of the most revelatory HD transfers I've seen, but given the source material this looks quite good.
Going the route Warner and Universal have taken with their HD DVD releases, Paramount is providing their first titles with Dolby Digital-Plus soundtracks. English, French and Spanish options are provided, and Paramount has even thrown in an optional English DTS track for good measure.
I find that standard DTS tracks suffer a bit in comparison to Dolby Digital-Plus, and that's the case here. The Dolby Digital-Plus track boasts better frequency response, with nicer-sounding midrange and cleaner highs. Low bass is solid on both, though I felt it was a bit more powerful on the Dolby track when it comes to consistent and repetitive sounds, such as the stampeding of horse hooves and the percussive moments of Danny Elfman's score. Unfortunately, 'Sleepy Hollow' is not as enveloping in its sound design as I had hoped. It 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.
Thankfully, Paramount has not chintzed out with its first HD DVD releases and is including plenty of extras on all their launch titles. Taking a quick look at their first three waves of discs (Paramount was kind enough to send them all at the same time), all appear to have the exact same supplements as their standard DVD counterparts. Very cool.
Now, a note on Paramount's menu system. The studio seems to be taking the middle-ground between the navigation scheme used by Warner and Universal. Pop in a disc, and after the new spiffy Paramount HD DVD logo and a short commercial touting the studio's commitment to the format (including clips for yet-unannounced Paramount HD DVD titles including 'Mission: Impossible III' and 'Team America: World Police'), the disc defaults to the main menu, as Universal's HD DVD discs do. However, during playback of the film, hitting the menu button brings up a menu overlay in real-time and does not bring you back to the main menu, just like a Warner disc. Note, however, that Paramount is not including (at least so far) any of the interactive capabilities of Warner's HD DVD discs, such as the ability to zoom into the picture or create your own custom chapter bookmarks.
As for the extras themselves, 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 had a bit more fun watching 'Sleepy Hollow' again on HD DVD than I originally did in the theater. I don't think it is Tim Burton's best film, but it is moody and gory and never less than entertaining. This HD DVD may be a tad disappointing to some, if only because the source material does not have the crystal clear look of today's computer-perfected big-budget action movies. But we get a very nice transfer here given the film's intended visual style, and Paramount is including plenty of extras on all of their HD DVD releases. So a good first showing, I say.