Sleepy Hollow Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 1 release of Sleepy Hollow.

Before I start this review proper, I’ve got a double confession – not being American, I haven’t been force-fed (or indeed exposed in any other way to) Washington Irving’s classic story, so I won’t be commenting on the alleged mangling that the film has given it, except to mention that quite a few Irving fans were somewhat incensed.

And my second confession is that after the sublime Ed Wood, comfortably my favourite film of the 1990s (and when’s that coming out on DVD, Buena Vista?), my inner child has clearly decided that Tim Burton can do no wrong, because despite the often lukewarm reaction to Sleepy Hollow and its immediate predecessor Mars Attacks!, I fell madly in love with both of them pretty much from their opening scenes, and therefore blithely dismiss all criticism as being irrelevant nit-picking.

That said, even if it hadn’t been for this built-in bias, it’s unlikely I’d have been particularly disappointed. As far as I’m concerned, no film that features Christopher Walken as a psychotic headless horseman with green pointed teeth, a supporting cast that includes Christopher Lee, Michael Gambon, Martin Landau, Richard Griffiths, Michael Gough and Miranda Richardson, and sensationally overblown Gothic production design that makes Hammer Films (the obvious inspiration) look starkly minimalist is going to be anything other than seriously wonderful. Burton obviously dredged deep into his childhood memories of Hammer and Brothers Grimm fairytales – not to mention the original Washington Irving story – and as many of these memories are mine as well, they couldn’t help but strike a chord.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the villagers of what would normally be the appropriately-named Sleepy Hollow are being terrorised by something that stalks people at night, waylaying them in order to chop off and steal their heads. There are rumours that this is none other than the headless horseman of legend, but Constable Ichabod Crane, sent up from New York to investigate the killings, will have none of this nonsense: he’s a man of science and rationality, and comes equipped with an entire roomful of Heath Robinsonesque apparatus with which to perform minutely detailed forensic calculations that will unmask the killer far better than any primitive ritual based on irrelevant superstition. But the problem is, the villagers are absolutely right…

Boasting an intelligent, literate script by Se7en’s Andrew Kevin Walker and, uncredited (except in the commentary), Tom Stoppard, the film strikes a near faultless balance between comedy and horror – a blend that’s very hard to bring off effectively. Although this is unquestionably the goriest mainstream movie since Starship Troopers (whose Casper Van Dien also appears here), the overall lightness of touch is such that you barely notice, which is why this got a 15 certificate when not dissimilar films by the likes of Lucio Fulci got extensively scissored even for adults. A particularly nice touch is Ichabod’s squeamishness when confronted with the aftermath of the horseman’s nocturnal visits, coupled with Burton’s determination to spray gouts of blood over him at every possible opportunity. Apparently Burton was surprised that it got an R rating in the US, barring unaccompanied children – but he was pretty much the only one!

Although set in America, the feel is overwhelmingly British, not just because of the overt Hammer influence and the fact that it was mostly shot over here, but also because the supporting cast have amassed a veritable encyclopaedia of classic British cinema between them, from 1950s chillers like Horrors of the Black Museum (Michael Gough) to the more recent likes of Withnail & I (Richard Griffiths). Much of the film feels like a large-scale family reunion, even though many of these actors hadn’t actually worked with Burton or even each other before – and the performances are pretty much faultless throughout: as Burton points out in the commentary, actors like Martin Landau, Michael Gambon and indeed Christopher Walken are particularly good at “silent movie” acting, where their emotions are conveyed visually rather than through dialogue – which benefits a film like this no end.

The leads are more of a mixed bag. Unfortunately, I read an inspired piece of observation in the Time Out letters page mere hours before seeing the film for the first time, which was that Johnny Depp’s well-known obsession with The Fast Show has clearly led him to model his accent on that of Swiss Toni (“Having your head sliced off by a headless horseman is like making love to a beautiful woman”). As a result, I started giggling from the moment he first opened his mouth, which is a little unfair as Depp tries hard in a relatively thankless part that frequently comes close to self-parody. And although you’d have thought that her Addams Family experience alone would have made Christina Ricci a natural for the Tim Burton universe, in the event she’s oddly flat and subdued, drowned by the excesses everywhere else (I think the blonde wig was a mistake, however true to the original story it may have been).

But these are minor quibbles about what must at the very least be one of the most ravishingly beautiful horror films ever made, outdoing even The Company of Wolves and Bram Stoker’s Dracula for visual lushness (it’s also rather less pretentious, and moves a lot faster). What I love about Burton’s films is that right from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (which he made in his mid-twenties) he’s always been completely uncowed by the massive budgets and armies of technicians needed to realise his films – there’s a demented throwaway poetry about them that you often get in lower-budget films but rarely on this kind of scale: among many images that have lodged themselves permanently into my brain are the Halloween scarecrow, a windmill that’s as gaunt and twisted as the trees that surround it, a man being literally cleft in twain on the bridge, or Ichabod’s doomed mother levitating into the air in an ecstatic trance. It’s the sort of film you dream about for weeks after seeing it, which makes this DVD release all the more welcome.

A film like Sleepy Hollow demands the highest technical standards when it comes to a DVD transfer – the desaturated colours (at times it’s almost in black and white), generally low-level lighting scheme, vast quantities of fog and smoke and other elements could easily have tripped up a digital version, but I’m delighted to confirm that Paramount have done a genuinely state-of-the-art job: it looks fabulous from first frame to last.

Needless to say, it’s anamorphic and presented in the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but what’s even more impressive is that it captures so much of the fine detail and (most importantly) atmosphere that I remember so vividly from seeing it on one of London’s biggest cinema screens a few months earlier. This is a critically important test for a DVD of the work of one of the cinema’s great visual stylists, and I’m happy to confirm it passes every test with flying colours – and if those colours are often a little muted and the picture a tad grainy, rest assured that that’s intentional.

I’ve got no complaints on the sonic side of things either – a film like this offers immense scope for everything from subtly atmospheric background sounds to full-blown orchestral blowouts: it’s particularly effective whenever the horseman emerges to gallop through the night, blade drawn ready to cleave through flesh and bone, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix exploits all these elements to the full (there’s also a Dolby Surround option, but it’s a pale shadow by comparison). There are nineteen chapter stops – OK, but not overly generous.

As for the extras – well, it’s a Paramount disc, so what did you expect?

Ha! Fooled you – actually, either they’ve changed their usual ultra-minimalist policy or Tim Burton did some arm-twisting, because this is unusually feature-packed by their standards, and if it ultimately isn’t quite up to Universal Collector’s Edition or New Line Platinum levels of generosity, you certainly won’t feel short-changed.

The extras cover all the usual bases – two trailers, cast/crew biographies, a stills gallery with sixteen (rather small) images from the film, but the real meat starts with the surprisingly comprehensive 30-minute production featurette – although it often falls prey to the usual studio puffery (the portentous voice-over is a particular liability), there’s also a lot of genuinely interesting material here, particularly the behind-the-scenes footage and special effects explanations. This is augmented by a further ten minutes of documentary material, mostly revolving around cast and crew interviews.

The Tim Burton commentary is a mixed bag, and on balance it may have been a mistake not to pair him up with someone else (Johnny Depp, perhaps?) – there are some long pauses, and what comes across most strongly is the abiding impression that Burton’s strengths are more visual than verbal! But it’s worth sticking with, because there’s a lot of useful material here, not to mention his immense affection for almost everyone he worked with, right down to Max, the man responsible for pumping several miles’ worth of fake fog through the set every day.

He’s particularly good on the veterans – I loved his all too audible glee as he describes the way Christopher Lee ended up looking exactly like Dracula even though this was entirely unintentional at the time of shooting. There are also some heartfelt tributes to the likes of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, who would certainly have ended up in this if they’d still been alive, plus film-makers that had a major influence on this (Mario Bava, Roger Corman), and I particularly liked surreal asides like “I tried to stick in sheep whenever I could – I don’t know why; I just like their sound” or “Sometimes we just felt we were making a really bad Merchant Ivory picture”.

When this came out in mid-2000, it was by far the best Tim Burton DVD yet released, and despite some excellent special editions that followed in its wake (most notably of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands and Planet of the Apes) it remains pretty high up the list. But when are Buena Vista going to release Ed Wood?

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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