Comic book writer Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell took From Hell for the title of their epic-length autopsy of the Ripper murders, one of the most morally bleak and scrupulously researched works ever to use the comic book form. From Hell is an even more apt title for the Hughes Brothers' film adaptation of the graphic novel, projecting onto movie screens a horrific vision that almost makes up for the contrivances of the script.
The Hughes Brothers made their names with their gritty look at gangsta life Menace II Society, and they may have been drawn to From Hell for its portrayal of crime in another kind of ghetto. Shot in Prague, the film makes the London's Whitechapel slums out to be a cobblestoned inferno in perpetual midnight, with carnality, corruption and brutality on every corner. The impoverished are preyed upon by the Victorian ruling class both figuratively and literally in Moore's theory of Ripper murders (a case that has invited as much speculation as the Kennedy assassination).
From Hell begins with the point of view of the victims-to-be, a group of prostitutes who have Heather Graham's Marie Kelly as de facto leader. They ply their trade in alleys, wash in public troughs and can barely earn enough for food and lodging, let alone to pay off sadistic protection racketeers. When streetwalkers begin being savagely slain, the first suspects are the mobsters.
But the idea of an educated suspect occurs immediately to Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp), who asserts that the anatomical accuracy of crimes points to a doctor, not a butcher. With the Shakespeare-quoting Sgt. Godley (Robbie Coltrane) at his side, Abberline pursues leads and interviews the prostitutes, developing protective instincts -- and possibly deeper feelings -- for Kelly in particular. He also consults with a well-connected surgeon, Sir William Gull (Ian Holm, eyes darkly gleaming), who gives his expert opinion on the Ripper's methods, but may know more than he lets on.
The murder victims, Abberline, Gull and most of the minor characters were real people, and the Elephant Man even has a cameo appearance. Where the hugely footnoted comic book extrapolated from the historic record, the movie script even more drastically fictionalizes the roles to make them typical subjects for a mainstream film. Depp's Abberline is now a drug addict wont to zone out in opium dens and receive visions of the crimes he investigates. The opium dreams justify the film's feverish style, replete with blood-red skies and green-tinted alleys, but it's a poorly conceived plot device, lazily lifted from TV cop shows like "Profiler."
It doesn't help that long-haired Depp, making doe eyes at Graham, looks more like one of his dashing gypsies from Chocolat or The Man Who Cried than a Victorian police detective. Graham retains too much movie star glamour to be credible as a guttersnipe prostitute, and the Abberline-Kelly romance seems like a cheap way to involve an audience. They're not uninteresting as actors, but Depp and Graham seem untouched by the film's squalid, brutal setting.
If From Hell can be frustrating by Hollywood's usual standards, it's still an unnerving, visceral experience with power to leave you shaken hours later. Steeped in violence -- against women, against the poor, against the truth -- it's best approached as a mood piece and series of images, closer to a Bosch or Bruegel painting of damnation than a teen escapist horror film. And no matter how paranoid From Hell's theorizing may be, the facts of the Ripper murders, and our persistent fascination with them, can't be easily dismissed.
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