"One day men will look back and say that I gave birth to the 20th century."
Jack the Ripper
The brooding night sky lit up with a maniacal, crimson glow. A dark, desolate alleyway where evil lurks in the shadows. A horse-drawn carriage with unsettling green lanterns hanging on both sides, the same color as the deadly absinthe the Inspector dabbles with. A woman munching on grapes (a delicacy in the 19th-century) who will be dead moments later, her throat slit open and her intestines wrapped tightly around her neck. An opium den where junkies lie around, hallucinating and dreaming of the life they once knew. "From Hell," directed by Allen and Albert Hughes (1993's "Menace II Society"), creates such a vivid visual landscape and a threateningly foreboding mood that it is best to think about the unforgettable images the film has to offer, rather than the poorly written characters and cheap story developments that bog everything else down.
Based on the comic book series by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, "From Hell" takes countless liberties with the true life tale of serial killer Jack the Ripper, a faceless phantom that roamed the Whitechapel district of London, circa 1888, brutally murdering prostitutes until he vanished one day without a trace. In this partially fictional account, Inspector Aberline (Johnny Depp) is promptly brought onto the case to investigate the recent series of slashings and disembowelments of a tight-knit group of street walkers. Aberline is vital to the inspection because of the drug-induced, psychic visions he has. Along with his partner, Sergeant Peter Godfrey (Robbie Coltrane), they begin scouting out the crime scenes looking for clues. Meanwhile, fresh-faced prostitute Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), who has been forced into the lowly profession by the intimidating Nichols gang, has reason to believe she may be next on the killer's list.
"From Hell" is a remarkable technical achievement so far superior to the details of the plot and one-dimensional characters that it's a real shame. The production design by Martin Childs (1998's "Shakespeare in Love") is accurately eerie, painting the east side of London as a place one would never want to visit in the flesh. The cinematography by Peter Deming (2000's "Scream 3
") is spookily atmospheric and richly mounted. And the stirring editing by George Bowers and Dan Lebental gives the viewer the impression of almost watching a dream unfold on film, with quick cuts and intermittent fast motion.
Starting off with an arresting first 45 minutes, "From Hell" begins spinning its wheels in place, with a middle half-hour that is so slow and plodding it stops the intriguing story right in its tracks. From there it's even further downhill, with central characters (particularly Heather Graham's Mary Kelly) that turn out to have little to do with anything, a whodunit mystery that is both unnecessary (since the real Jack the Ripper was never apprehended) and laughably predictable (I guessed who the killer was upon first appearance of the actor), and a conclusion that throws the history of the case right out the window. For reasons unknown, the Hughes brothers and screenwriters Terry Hayes (1999's "Payback
") and Rafael Yglesias (1998's "Les Miserables") have opted to throw the historically grim outcome of the case out the window for a false happy ending, followed by an even more depressing final scene that serves no apparent purpose.
Johnny Depp (2001's "Blow
"), as opium-addicted Inspector Aberline, played virtually the same role as Ichabod Crane in 1999's "Sleepy Hollow
," minus the drug angle. Depp fits snugly into the part, but it is one with few acting challenges or opportunities to stretch his abilities. Faring worse is Heather Graham (2001's "Say It Isn't So
"), as the possibly ill-fated Mary Kelly; perhaps one day she will get a satisfying character to play, but this one isn't is. Graham does adequate with her Irish accent, but she is pointlessly developed as a major character and then wasted to the point of coming off as an afterthought.
The romance that is brought up between Depp and Graham is also out of place, and the movie knows it. Only one scene is truly dedicated to presenting the burgeoning feelings between Inspector Aberline and Mary Kelly, and yet the viewer is expected to believe they love each other later on. This subplot is sloppy, boneheaded, and holds none of the resonance it is supposed to in the final scenes.
"From Hell" does get one thing perfectly right, and that is the sense of danger lurking behind every crevice of the city streets. Bloody as anything else released this year, the picture features the most disturbingly graphic throat-slitting sequence probably in all of film history. Beyond the gore is a visually beautiful movie that you could look at all day and not get tired of. And beyond the sumptuous production values is a screenplay that is just screaming for a major rewrite. "From Hell" is a memorable motion picture, to be sure, but it leaves a negative aftertaste even before the end credits start to roll.
©2001 by Dustin Putman