Here you’ll find madness, mayhem, and murder, in no short supply. The Hughes brothers, Albert and Allen, have always had a knack for horror, as evidenced by their edgy gangster flicks, Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, which they’ve stated were influenced by the styles of Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. Their latest offering, From Hell, is a visionary breakthrough for the young directors, a darkly alluring and largely successful attempt to crowd the territory of Roman Polanski and Dario Argento.
While audiences may be attracted by the premise of an adorably dapper Johnny Depp versus bad old Jack the Ripper, what’s really afoot here is the Hugheses’ transposition of their familiar themes onto ostensibly foreign turf. There are no atrocities in convenience stores nor exploding bank trucks, yet every second of this project is informed by the directors’ philosophy of “Wherever you go, there you are…in the ‘hood.” Even though From Hell is set in Victorian England (and lensed, like most English movies these days, in the Czech Republic), there’s no escaping the ghastliness of hapless proles being beaten down by the twisted ruling class.
Our heroine is Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), a curiously pure, scarlet-tressed streetwalker in London’s seedy Whitechapel district, whose occupation seems to involve little more than walking the streets. (“England doesn’t have whores,” she claims, “just a great lot of very unlucky women.”) It’s a hard-knock life for Mary and her prossie sisters, as they haven’t a thruppence among them, and the vicious Nichols gang — led by a knife-happy bastard named Mcqueen (David Schofield) — threatens to cut into their moneymakers. Things only get worse as the whores’ friend Ann Crook (Joanna Page) is abruptly torn from the haunches of her husband, Albert Sickert (Mark Dexter), and their young daughter Alice (Poppy Rogers) is left among the strumpets.
Noting that the peculiarly refined Albert must have mixed in with “summat tewwible,” the girls are put on high alert, but their exhausting lifestyle — quickies in alleyways, sleeping upright while bound together on benches — makes them particularly vulnerable to a seductive beast roaming the night streets, with a covetable bunch of grapes in one paw and a precision blade in the other. Before long, the uppity Martha Tabram (Samantha Spiro) meets with a nasty gutting, and the Hughes brothers paint the London sky a vicious crimson, filling our eyes with scary gargoyles and spooky shadows. The nightmare of Jack the Ripper has begun.
Enter Depp as Inspector Fred Abberline, a character based on the detective who actually tracked the killer in September 1888, but doubtless far sexier than either the real man or Michael Caine’s portrayal thereof in the 1988 made-for-TV movie Jack the Ripper. Just as Depp admitted to channeling Angela Lansbury for his amusing portrayal of the terribly miscalculated Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, here he has basically become Prince. To be more accurate, he puts out the detached, wide-eyed “‘Sup witchoo?” of the little purple one as filtered through the narcotic daze of Robert Stephens in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. If you think that’s a neat trick, consider that Abberline — who’s lost his wife and child — quaffs laudanum and absinthe like Kool-Aid, the better to enhance his psychic visions. Under the ministrations of his kindly supervisor, Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), Abberline returns to his old beat of Whitechapel to track and capture the Ripper.
Loosely adapted from the serialized graphic novel by comic guru Alan Moore and illustrator Eddie Campbell, the screenplay by Terry Hayes (Dead Calm) and Rafael Yglesias (Fearless) captures many of the book’s juicy details (including the presence of Elephant Man John Merrick) without slavishly aping the scintillating opus. Gone are the protracted framing devices, most of the metaphysical exposition, and the very early revelation of Jack’s identity. The revised narrative of the film doesn’t exactly ooze with mystery either, but it opts to hold out for a while, inspiring plenty of pathos and shocks as it plots its steady course. We know who the Ripper is long before the makeup people fit him with the black contact lenses of evil incarnate, but the film trades primarily on brooding period atmosphere, not surprises.
The rest of From Hell is concerned with moldy conspiracy theories, as the abducted Albert turns out to have direct ties to the very manipulative Queen Victoria (Liz Moscrop). The royal physician, Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), follows orders to care for the frail young man while also overseeing, with the fiendish Dr. Ferral (Paul Rhys), the hideous lobotomy of the “delusional” Ann. Complicating matters, the wise old doctor is attended by a dimwitted, thuggish assistant (a wonderfully leery Jason Flemyng) and proudly represents the Freemasons, whose initiation rituals are presented as perverse and possibly dangerous gimcrackery. Only a depressed, doped-up pretty boy could hope to discover how all this connects to the string of mutilated prostitutes.
From Hell is pretty grotesque at times, as the directors have married their love of bleeding bodies to the sticky visuals of Millennium Effects, who added all the pointless but realistic gore to Spielberg’s vulgar tantrum, Saving Private Ryan. Despite their tomfoolery with gashed throats and butchered guts, however, the brothers opt out of categorization with cheap slasher movies by delivering extremely impressive production values, a horror show by way of Merchant-Ivory, with a superbly somber score by Trevor Jones, performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Field. If you leave before the stupid Marilyn Manson song blares over the end credits, the eerie authenticity will haunt you.
What’s most impressive is the directors’ refusal to blow their film into a high-concept mess. Unlike recent tripe like Jeepers Creepers (gay porn masquerading as a monster movie), From Hell wants to dig not only into the guts of the innocent, but into the complex entrails of history. After the success of this film, perhaps the Hughes brothers can turn their reactionary perspective — and ours — from the basic plight of the victimized underclass to the more intricate horrors of the well-heeled.