Directors: Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes
Cast: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Jason Felmyng, Katrin Cartlidge, Robert Coltrane
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence/gore, sexuality, language and drug content)
Running Time: 2:01
Release Date: 10/19/01
Review by Mark Dujsik
Jack the Ripper is one of those enigmatic figures that defines an entire area of human behavior. No one knows who he was or why he committed the crimes he did, but lore of his actions well over a hundred years ago still have the power to frighten us. That is unless you’ve stumbled upon From Hell, a muddled mess of a thriller, that works effectively as a piece of pure atmosphere but fails on just about every other level. This is most likely due to the fact that it was based on a graphic novel. The tendency with such adaptations is to overplay the visual elements to compensate for the usual lack of characterization and plot. In this case, the characters exist to be killed or help find the killer, and the plot is basically incoherent for the first twenty to thirty minutes—a series of images without connection. Even the strong style, though, cannot make up for these immensely damaging weaknesses.
As I stated, From Hell begins with an incoherent series of images, but luckily, I have a basic knowledge of the Jack the Ripper case and was able to figure out essentially what was happening. Those who just know the killer by name alone will most likely be lost. A group of prostitutes, led by Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), are in trouble with a local gang. The gang threatens to do something horrible to them if they do not pay a pound a week each. Soon after, one of them is taken away in a carriage along with her usual customer, leaving behind their baby. After this mysterious event, another of them is murdered. Enter Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), who is an opium addict and also has some kind of second-sight. He saw a woman being murdered in his visions and is soon on the trail of the elusive Saucy Jack.
Considering the unique look of the movie, you would expect something unique from the story, but From Hell progresses predictably, tediously, and conventionally. It begins as a sort of mad-man horror movie, where the killer lurks in the shadows waiting for victims. As the movie goes on, it becomes more like a cheap modern horror movie, where the killer is someone in the movie who will only be revealed when he or she decides to confess. The identity of the killer is wrapped within a laughable conspiracy, which reaches the campy level of an Elvis/Marilyn love child. One thing I did like about the structure of the killings is how the graphic violence is mostly kept off-screen. The tendency in horror movies is make the murders as bloody and gory as possible, and it is strangely refreshing having a movie that does not exist solely to test the strength of your stomach.
Other gimmicks used in the movie do not fare as well. Lots of these are throw-aways. Abberline’s psychic abilities are barely developed, and I wonder why it is actually needed. Some of the better scenes in the movie involve Abberline using actual police procedural work, sans supernatural ability. Because the lead characters are of the opposite gender, a romance grows. Once again, the characters are paper-thin and not a lot of time is given to develop the love story. That is not to say that the actors are not good. Depp disappears into his role yet again, although this time around, it feels like a waste. Graham is serviceable, despite an accent that flounders all over.
From Hell was directed by the Hughes Brothers (Albert and Allen), who are mostly known for more gritty, urban works like Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. Here they show a strong visual style and effectively place it in the period setting. There are some great images here—the blood red sky of London and the greenish hue of the inspector’s visions. It’s morbidly beautiful to look at but never involving in any other way.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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