While we've all seen motion pictures that are simplistic comic-book versions of sophisticated novels, "From Hell" is something different: a pared-down comic-book version of an actual comic book. No, that is not progress.
The Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell take on 19th century London's Jack the Ripper murders is, of course, no mere comic book. It's a massive, graphic novel published over the course of a decade and so fiendishly researched and detailed it has more than 40 pages of footnotes in small print. Both the book and the film, directed by the Hughes brothers and starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, share a fascination with the grisly particulars of the Ripper's murders of five prostitutes, though those bloody doings are considerably more unpleasant to experience on film than in black-and-white line drawings, no matter how artfully done.
That's not fair, lovers of cinematic gore will complain. No one is going to venture into a movie about Jack the Ripper directed by the people who brought you "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents" expecting "Sense and Sensibility." After all, what's one more graphically slit throat among friends? Still, it is deeply unpleasant to see women abducted, tortured and eviscerated by a methodical and meticulous butcher. Even more unhappy is the work's fanaticism about re-creating that savagery (albeit in fleeting glimpses) as precisely as modern special-effects technology allows. Here is a film that is thoroughly pleased with itself for getting use of extremely rare murder-scene photos and coroner reports that revealed, a technician confides, "the location, size and depth of the incisions, all very minute in detail." The result, the press material boasts, were dummies "so startlingly realistic that few of the actresses wanted to view them." Now that's really something to be proud of.
On the surface, 1888 London, even as re-created in Prague, is a major change of scene for the Hughes brothers, whose previous films have been set in modern urban locales. But "From Hell's" Whitechapel area turns out to have a lot in common with those neighborhoods in terms of poverty, violence and even drug use. In fact, police inspector Fred Abberline (Depp) is introduced preparing for his periodic ingestion of opium, a drug he supplements with generous quantities of absinthe and laudanum. It's all in a good cause, though: The inspector's hallucinogenic visions turn out to help him see crimes before they are committed.
The Ripper murders especially demand his attention and bring him in contact with a chummy group of prostitutes the maniac seems especially eager to eliminate. Prettiest among these is red-haired Mary Kelly (Graham), initially resistant to all authority figures but soon smitten by the inspector's sleepy-eyed charisma. Also helping out in the investigation is Sir William Gull (the always effective Ian Holm), the royal family's personal physician. He takes a professional interest in a murderer who seems to have more than a casual knowledge of anatomy and the principles of medical dissection.
Though the graphic novel tells us who the Ripper is almost at once, "From Hell" turns that story into a detective yarn, alternating scenes of the inspector tracing down clues and Jack, his face never seen, committing increasingly stomach-turning homicides. Violence, of course, is not new to the Hughes brothers' films, but in "Menace" and "Presidents" there was an additional level of involving social criticism that gave us a reason to endure the mayhem. Here, the film is considerably more off-putting than what it gives back.
The Hughes brothers, working from a script by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, probably think they've covered that base. There's considerable huffing and puffing involving class prejudice and hypocrisy, lots of xenophobic upper-crust bloviation of the "no well-bred man could do this" variety while it becomes increasingly clear to the inspector that that's just who was responsible. Actually, "From Hell's" theory as to who the Ripper was and why he did what he did is an intriguing one, and could easily have made a much more palatable film on the order of the Nicole Kidman-starring "The Others" if palatable were something the filmmakers were after. Clearly, it was not. In fact, the only regret the Hughes brothers seem to have, if their frequent interviews are any measure, is that they didn't make this film even more gruesome.
"There's still a part of me that goes, ... 'We sold out' because we didn't show all the blood," Albert Hughes told one journalist, while informing another: "If we had our way, we'd show all the gore. We'd be satisfied, but it would pretty much end us in Hollywood." If this is the kind of film they're going to be making, maybe that's a fair trade.
MPAA rating: R, for strong violence/gore, sexuality, language and drug content. Times guidelines: an especially graphic throat-cutting and unpleasant glimpses of truly horrific slaughters.
Johnny Depp: Fred Abberline
Heather Graham: Mary Kelly
Ian Holm: Sir William Gull
Robbie Coltrane: Peter Godley
An Underworld Pictures/Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher/Amy Robinson production, released by 20th Century Fox. Directors the Hughes Brothers. Producers Don Murphy, Jane Hamsher. Executive producers Amy Robinson, Thomas M. Hammel, Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes. Screenplay Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, based on the novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Cinematographer Peter Deming. Editors Dan Lebental, George Bowers. Costumes Kym Barrett. Music Trevor Jones. Production design Martin Childs. Art director Jindra Koci. Set decorator Jill Quertier. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
In general release.