out of 4
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Review by Harvey Karten
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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
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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