From Hell
review by Joe Barlow, 19 October 2001

From Hell, the remarkable new suspense-thriller from the Brothers Hughes (Albert and Allen, the same duo who brought you Menace II Society), may well take its title from the boundless, unexplored corridors of the human mind, which is surely where they found the building blocks of this riveting tale. Actually, perhaps I should back up a minute to reassess the target of my praise. The film itself, which stars Johnny Depp as a Scotland Yard detective hot on the trail of one Jack the Ripper, takes its inspiration not so much from the actual Whitechapel murders of the late 1880s, but from the renowned graphic novel by Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore, which uses the murders as its backdrop. I haven't read the book in question, but I'm told that it's considered something of a minor classic among genre fans. Based on the fiendish nature of the puzzle at the heart of this cinematic adaptation, I'm willing to believe it. Hell, at this point, I'm willing to believe pretty much whatever they want to tell me.

You see, I'm astonished. I don't see as many suspense/thrillers as I used to--not because I have any disdain for the genre, but, as a somewhat new father, my viewing choices these days are limited to more family-friendly fare. However, enjoying a rare night out at the cinema without the kids this week, I witnessed the spectacle of From Hell, and I'm still reeling from the experience. Not because the film was especially visceral (though it has its moments), or because the level of suspense and tension was overwhelming. No, what really knocked my socks off (or would have, if I'd been wearing any), was the incredible sense of cohesion that permeates every frame of this movie. This is a film in which everything gels perfectly, and that in itself is enough to inspire awe and wonderment in this jaded critic, who has grown mightily tired of movies that "almost" get it right. And as a (somewhat) intelligent film-goer, I'm prepared to embrace any flick that doesn't expect--indeed, demand--that I check my brain at the theater door. (Are we getting into a whole weird area if I reveal that I felt satiated upon leaving the theater? We are? Okay, never mind.)

Nineteenth-century London has always been a fascinating backdrop to me--the glow of gaslights, bravely standing vigil in the fog-shrouded night; the click-clack of a horse-drawn carriage, traipsing lightly over the cobblestone streets; the merry violin of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, celebrating the solution of his latest mind-bending puzzle. In From Hell, the Hughes Brothers make this locale into a terrifying reality as Police Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp) and his friend Peter (Robbie Coltrane, who may as well be wearing a sign around his neck reading "Designated Sidekick") pursue the ever-baffling trail of the shadowy serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.

Jack's modus operandi seems to be the butchery of street prostitutes, usually involving the removal of at least one internal organ from the corpses as trophies (a bit of play in which the real Jack the Ripper did, in fact, engage). While investigating the case, Abberline befriends--and, in the film's only tired subplot, eventually becomes romantically linked to--a hooker named Mary Kelly (Heather Graham of Austin Powers and Boogie Nights fame), who fears not only for her own safety, but for the welfare of the other "street girls."

While watching From Hell, I tried to think of the last time a setting became such an intrinsic part of a story. Dark City, perhaps? Or The Crow? Or maybe the two Batman outings directed by Tim Burton? The dark, grimy streets of London have never felt more "alive" on the screen--which is perhaps surprising, since the press kit I received for this film informs me that much of it was shot in Prague. All the more reason to offer kudos to the art department and set designers for pulling off a miraculous transplantation of one of the nineteenth century's most important cities.

Much of the atmosphere, however, comes not from the photography but from the genuinely creepy screenplay from Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesais. Tension comes not just from Abberline's physical nemesis of Jack the Ripper, but from his own struggles with the psychological dragon of opium addiction. Themewise, Depp here is on familiar ground: as in much of his work with Tim Burton, Depp is once again portraying an outcast with more to him than a casual onlooker might initially suspect (see Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, and others). But unlike his most recent turn as Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow--a performance in which Depp seemed to be channeling Tim Burton's bizarre eccentricities more than his own character's--Depp here is firmly in his element. In the competent hands of the Hughes Brothers, he is allowed the freedom to explore the depths of Abberline's character, rather than being wasted as an employer of weird gizmos, as seen in Burton's disenchanting Sleepy Hollow.

From Hell is one of the best thrillers to hit movie theaters... well, possibly ever, but certainly since Demme's Silence of the Lambs made Hannibal Lecter a household name. See it once just to bask in the macabre visuals, which appear to have been ripped straight from a madman's nightmare. See it again to appreciate the deft touch of the screenplay and the directors' hands, and the way in which Depp effortlessly propels the narrative where it needs to go, all the while making it look easy. Pay particular attention to Depp's body language as his character seeks a vision via his beloved opium. If he were to encounter the owner of such dazed, vacant eyes while walking around London, I suspect even Dr. Lecter himself might cross the street to avoid him.

Directed by:
Albert and Allen Hughes

Starring:
Johnny Depp
Heather Graham
Robbie Coltrane
Ian Holm
Jason Flemyng
Susan Lynch 

Written by:
Terry Hayes
Rafael Yglesias

Rated:
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying
parent or adult
guardian.

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