Review: ‘From Hell’

Jack the Ripper's at it again, but the results are more horror than genuinely "From Hell." Pic is a surprisingly conventional Olde London Towne gaslight mystery featuring Johnny Depp as an opium-smoking Cockney cop and Heather Graham as a remarkably clear-skinned working-class hooker. Fox releases it Oct. 19.

Jack the Ripper’s at it again, but the results are more amped-up Hammer Horror than genuinely “From Hell.” Anyone expecting the combo of Allen and Albert Hughes (“Menace II Society”) and the famed Victorian serial-killer to result in a gritty, stygian, skin-crawling horror movie will be severely disappointed: Pic is a surprisingly conventional Olde London Towne gaslight mystery, gussied up with some doctored visuals, an eccentric performance by Johnny Depp as an opium-smoking Cockney cop and Heather Graham as a remarkably clear-skinned working-class hooker. Catering to no clear demographic, pic looks likely to grab only a moderate, rather than prime, cut of the market when Fox releases it Oct. 19.

The true story of the man who, in fall 1888, sliced up five prostitutes in the working class district of Whitechapel, east London, has provided background for a multitude of films, from Hitchcock’s “The Lodger” to Nicholas Meyer’s “Time After Time.” Among those attempting to propose a solution, and delve into the rumors of the time, the best remain James Hill’s remarkably good “A Study in Terror” (1965) and Bob Clark’s less atmospheric “Murder by Decree” (1979). Both brought the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes in to solve the mystery and proposed coverups involving the British establishment and royal family.

In the U.K., especially, there’s long been a whole industry devoted to the murders and — at least for Ripper fans — much of the steam is taken out of the present item by a recent book that 99.9% solved the mystery, pinning it on an Irish-American quack who later died in obscurity in the States. Ignoring this, “From Hell” follows the traditional path of concocting high-level shenanigans involving the royals, freemasonry and the upper classes.

“One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the 20th century” runs the opening caption by Jack, and the silhouette of London against a flame-red sky promises a vision of hell. (The Hughes brothers are on record as calling it “a ghetto story.”) In fact, what we get is a backlot East End, where goons from the Nichols gang are leaning on Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and her hooker pals for regular payments. For all its minimal atmosphere, this could almost be a scene from “Oliver!” on a fine day, with everyone stoking up their Cockney accents and having a high old time down at the corner pub later on.

Pic has difficulty establishing a rhythm at the start, with characters rapidly introduced and only backgrounded later. One prostitute is literally hauled off a client in a police bust and later used as a live specimen for frontal lobotomy at a medical college run by Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), a physician to the royal family. Only much later is this explained.

Meanwhile, Jack has claimed a victim, Polly (Annabelle Apsion), in a brief, savage sequence with a bloody dagger flashing in the dark that also promises more stylization than pic ever delivers. Oddball police inspector Fred Abberline (Depp) is roused from his opium slumbers in a Chinese cellar by his sidekick, Godley (Robbie Coltrane), and taken to headquarters to freshen up.

In a script device that’s never properly explained or integrated, Abberline apparently has strange powers of second sight that have helped him solve crimes. He is thus assigned the case by his snooty, upper-class boss (Ian Richardson), who hopes he can pin it on an American, Indian or Jew rather than a Brit.

Abberline deduces that the murderer is a wealthy man from the evidence of grape stalks near the victim and that the killer has knowledge of anatomy from the way in which he removed Polly’s “livelihood.” Gull helps him with more info on the surgical side.

At Polly’s funeral, Abberline meets Mary, who first berates him for police inefficiency but later, as friendship blooms, points him in the direction of coverup involving the royal family. But as Abberline and Mary are each to learn, the real murderer is a loony much closer to home who thinks he is the devil reincarnate.

Film gives little feel of the sheer terror that gripped Whitechapel during the period and the way in which minorities were targeted as part of the press hysteria. And apart from the final one, there’s also very little sustained drama to the murders themselves.

Sporting an accent seemingly perfected at the Michael Caine School of Cockney Lads — and which ill fits the thesp’s chiseled features behind his long, unkempt hair — Depp evinces a canine doggedness as Abberline, relentlessly sniffing out his prey. But with a script that is little more than a smorgasbord of handed-down rumors from the time, he makes little sense of his character and is consistently outmatched by Coltrane’s dry one-liners as his cynical assistant.

With long, flame-red locks and an unlocatable accent, Graham is just OK as the lead hooker. There’s little onscreen chemistry with Depp, and their characters’ putative love story doesn’t ring true in a production that aims at authenticity but delivers as much hokum as previous efforts, with a tacked-on, optimistic coda that’s pure Hollywood.

As the royal physician, Holm is the movie’s class act, and the closest to a well-rounded character. Among the many supports, Richardson coasts as Abberline’s upper-class boss, Susan Lynch is barely convincing as a lesbian hooker and Katrin Cartlidge phones in a perf as one of her colleagues.

Aside from some digital work for Abberline’s opium fantasies, and occasional visual trickery that adds nothing to the story, the Hugheses have made an utterly conventional movie that could have been lensed in the ’60s.

Pic makes good use of buildings in and around Prague for stately rooms and the like; the main Whitechapel set — constructed near Barrandov Studios — is detailed but has a thoroughly backlot feel.

Peter Deming’s widescreen Panavision lensing, all gauzy light and ochre colors, is fine in itself but gives little clue of the script’s inspiration, a celebrated 1999 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell in stylized chiaroscuro. Fact is, there’s not much particularly hellish about “From Hell,” and Trevor Jones’ moody background score is no help either.

From Hell

Production

A Twentieth Century Fox release of a Twentieth Century Fox presentation of an Underworld Pictures production. Produced by Don Murphy, Jane Hamsher. Executive producers, Amy Robinson, Thomas M. Hammel, Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes. Directed by Allen Hughes and Albert Hughes. Screenplay, Terry Hayes, Rafael Yglesias, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Peter Deming; editors, Dan Lebental, George Bowers; additional editor, Gina Zappala; music, Trevor Jones; production designer, Martin Childs; supervising art director, Mark Ragget; costume designer, Kym Barrett; makeup, hair designer, Lisa Westcott; sound (Dolby), Steven D. Williams, Franklin D. Stettner; visual effects, Illusion Arts; additional visual effects, Digiscope; special effects supervisor, George Gibbs; special makeup effects, Millennium House; second unit director, Arthur Wooster; assistant director, John Woodward. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 5, 2001. Running time: 121 MIN.

With

Insp. Fred Abberline - Johnny Depp Mary Kelly - Heather Graham Sir William Gull - Ian Holm Sgt. Peter Godley - Robbie Coltrane Sir Charles Warren - Ian Richardson Netley - Jason Flemyng "Dark Annie" Chapman - Katrin Cartlidge Ben Kidney - Terence Harvey Liz Stride - Susan Lynch Kate Eddowes - Lesley Sharp Polly - Annabelle Apsion
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