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FROM HELL(directors: Albert & Allen Hughes; screenwriter: from the graphic novel by Alan Moore & the comic book artist Eddie Campbell/Terry Hayes & Rafael Yglesias; cinematographer: Peter Deming; editors: Dan Lebental/George Bowers; cast: Johnny Depp (Inspector Frederick George Abberline), Heather Graham (Mary Kelly), Ian Holm (Sir William Gull), Katrin Cartlidge (‘Dark Annie’ Chapman), Robbie Coltrane (Sergeant Peter Godley), Jason Flemyng (Netley), Lesley Sharp (Kate Eddowes), Susan Lynch (Liz Stride), Terence Harvey (Ben Kidney), Annabelle Apsion (Polly), Sophia Myles (Victoria Abberline), Ian McNeice (Police Surgeon Drudge), Ian Richardson (Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: PG-13; 20th Century Fox; 2001)
“The film’s success comes from the powerful performances from the supporting actors and the beauty of the Grand Guignol atmosphere.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“From Hell” — its title comes from a phrase in a taunting note Jack the Ripper writes to the police after yet another of his gruesome ritual killings and body mutilations done with surgical precision on an East End prostitute. This film is another version about England’s much filmed and written about unsolved case, which has led to many conspiracy theories. This conspiracy theory leads to the front gates of Buckingham Palace.

In this fictionalized “Ripper” story the directors, the twin Hughes brothers (Dead Presidents/Menace II Society), reinvent the serial killer to be not only a madman but an elitist doing it for political reasons to serve his country. It was adapted from a comic-book series by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell and struck a broad and obvious note about the Whitechapel murders of 1888. Its main failing is that even though it brought lots of creepy atmosphere and gore and outrageously showed the cutting-edge doctors as celebrities who perform lobotomies on the unfortunates, it still brought no real scares or feelings for the characters. The film seemed more like a comic book treatment of a social melodrama than a literary work.

Its conspiracy theory centers on a Freemason plot to cover up the murder of a prostitute who secretly married the Queen’s son, an English Prince, who is dying of syphilis. To make matters worse, she was a Catholic and bore him a daughter who is in line for the throne. The only witnesses are a close-knit group of East End prostitutes who attended the wedding, not knowing who the groom was. The Special Branches of the monarchy organizes these killing of all the prostitute witnesses and they allow the Ripper to work undisturbed by the law. The film’s surprise is in who the Ripper is.

The film makes its case in a flat and uninteresting way. What elevates it, is the superbly provocative photography by Peter Deming of London’s dark nighttime streets (filmed in Prague). He makes them look like scenes from hell: with its dense fog; its mysterious horse carriages traveling at night with its clopping sounds against the cobblestones of the gas-lit streets; its foreboding pimps, such as the Nichols Gang, seen in the shadows threatening the whores with knives; and, the unsavory pubs as safe havens in the poor neighborhood.

It’s through the persistent investigation of a young middle-class police inspector, Abberline (Depp), and his loyal, rotund partner, Sergeant Godley (Robbie Coltrane), in trying to stop the bloody butchery by the East End’s legendary criminal, that we see who the killer is after being led down many blind alleys. We also observe the distrust the elite have for foreigners, outsiders, and Jews, and the tensions caused by the class differences between the unfortunates and those born of privilege.

Inspector Abberline is lying down in an opium den, looking as if he’s dead when he’s awakened by the sergeant and is told of another prostitute killed. He’s filled with visions of the murders while in a drug stupor, as he tracks down the killer by seeing the victims as they’re being slaughtered. That’s the film’s gimmick; but, aside from that, Depp’s performance was so droll and the prostitutes were all forgettable stereotype figures. Mary Kelly (Heather) as the nice whore with the heart of gold, trying to protect the other girls, captures the inspector’s lonely heart in an unlikely romance. Also, the psychic detective gimmick didn’t do much for the film except give the cinematographer a chance to make the violence more creatively accomplished.

The film’s success comes from the powerful performances from the supporting actors and the beauty of the Grand Guignol atmosphere. Coltrane is a delightful presence, as he gives both a comical and a solid performance as a dutiful cop. Ian Holm as Sir William Gull, the noted surgeon and personal physician to the royal family, is called upon to assist the inspector with the serial killer investigation, and is perfectly at home with his edgy role that gives the film the acting it couldn’t get from Depp’s laconic performance. Ian Richardson is a good antagonist to Depp, as the story makes the killings into a social issue and one of urban violence going unchecked. He’s the snooty Freemason bigot and corrupt police commissioner who wants Depp to pin the murder on an uneducated foreigner, or a Jew, or on a butcher, and by making one of them the scapegoat he’ll get a promotion. He gives a powerful performance in a role that if played by someone else would have probably made him into a cardboard character. As for Depp this film is at least a much better vehicle for him than “Sleepy Hollow,” but he’s capable of much more acting if given the right film. This film called for an older and more cynical performer as the inspector, one who could feel the Ripper in him and know him on sight. That is something I never got from Depp.

“From Hell” presented an interesting conspiracy theory, and set the dark atmosphere through the strong colorings of London in mahogany reds, ripening greens and misty browns. It also made its point in a believable though heavy-handed manner that the Victorian era’s 19th-century London of lower-class misery was a result of the Empire’s cold heart and the hypocrisy in its beliefs in sexual restraint.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”