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From Hell

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: From Hell

Starring: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham
Director: Allen Hughes
Rated: R
RunTime: 137 Minutes
Release Date: October 2001
Genres: Horror, Suspense

*Also starring: Ian Holm, Katrin Cartlidge, Robbie Coltrane, Jason Flemyng, Ian McNeice, Ian Richardson, Lesley Sharp, Annabelle Apsion

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The Hughes Brothers' new movie, once again filmed in their favorite location--the ghetto--gives new meaning to the song from "Most Happy Fella," "You've Gotta Have Heart." In this case, the principal villain (for there are a great many bad people in this story, which comes from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell), wants not only the body's principal pump but is even more into cutting out his victims' ovaries and kidneys. Jack the Ripper, who in this version has committed himself ritually to kill five prostitutes, was in real life never caught, which explains the freedom that directors and novelists have had in concocting their own fantasies about the serial killer. Both Alfred Hitchcock and John Brahm created works about "The Lodger," about a new tenant in a turn-of-century London boarding house who may be Jack the ripper, both films stressing atmosphere as does the Hughes Brothers' version. Nicholas Meyer's "Time After Time," however, is the most fanciful adaptation, that one of H.G. Wells following Jack the Ripper from Victorian England to the America of 1979 in his time machine.

But Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes' version is surprisingly conventional, despite the occasional, limited use of surreal imagery to add to the damp and dreary atmosphere of London's Whitechapel district where all the murders occurred. Whitechapel featured many of the attributes of a modern American slum--prostitutes working for drug money or even for mere survival, muggers, gangsters and the like--which is probably what gave the directors the incentive to take the project on after having made two ultra-violent ghetto films, "Dead Presidents" and "Menace II Society."

The story opens on a couple of low-life criminals from the Nichols gang, who are self-appointed pimps and so-called protectors of the fairly large community of street hookers in Whitechapel's mean, cobblestone streets. They are insisting that each of the women hand over a poundstrerling per week (worth more in 1888 than it is now), and they lean particularly on the surprisingly clean and well-attired Mary Kelly (Heather Graham). After photographer Peter Deming shifts his lenses to a live demonstration in a medical school of a prefrontal lobotomy, a crude method of destroying the aggressive parts of a psychotic's brain, we are introduced to a bloody scene as Jack the Ripper's dagger streaks into the gloomy streets, polishing off yet another victim. Police chief Sir Charles Warren (Ian Richardson) has assigned Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp) to bring Jack the Ripper to justice with the assistance of Sgt. Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane). Straight-arrow Godley is regularly disturbed by the idiosyncratic inspector who, having recently lost his wife and child takes refuse in opium--which gives him some limited psychic powers such as those enjoyed by Ted Brautigan in Scott Hicks's "Hearts in Atlantis."

In the tradition of Hollywood paranoia pictures that point the finger regularly at people high up in government as the fomenters of criminal acts, "From Hell" indicts not only the low-life hoodlums like The Ripper and the vicious Nichols gang but suggests that a conspiracy at the highest levels of British government, namely, Queen Victoria, may be involved in directing the exceedingly bloody acts of murder against the prostitutes. Since the killings remain unsolved for a length of time, people in seats of power are ready to scapegoat minorities, particularly Jews, as the perpetrators of the offenses, which gives a modern audience yet another example of a technique that began long before the 20th century's bloodlusts and ethnic cleansings.

Johnny Depp, though in his usual eccentric role, is disappointing in that his character does not deviate a whole lot from the conventional. Even Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose contributions to the world include two major poems "The Ancient Mariner" and "Kublai Khan," was fond of opium, as displayed through Julien Temple's more imaginative film, "Pandaemonium," and in this story Depp does not approach the bizarre nature of his Gilbert Grape of Ed Wood or Edward Scissorhands. His character's passion for Mary Kelly, his wish that she can leave the ghetto and go off to live with a family in a countryside cottage, is unconvincing given his lack of chemistry with the hooker, who is for some reason far cleaner than her street comrades and bears a surprisingly healthy skin.

"From Hell," then is part slasher movie, part atmospheric film (the Hughes' Brothers made good use of Prague and especially of a set designed at the famous Barrandov studios), and part Stephen-King supernatural yarn. The narrative is broken up too often, and the story takes too long getting down to a cadence, but on the whole is a decent enough contribution to the never-ending fascination with a serial killer whose crimes may come across as misdemeanors when set against the more perversely energetic executions of recent times.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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