FROM HELL (2001) 

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Johnny Depp
Heather Graham
Ian Holm
Paul Rhys
Robbie Coltrane
Annabelle Apsion
Katrin Cartlidge
Jason Flyming
Lesley Sharp
Ian Richardson
Susan Lynch

Hughes Brothers



Graphic Novel

Time: 137 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: Horror/Romance/Drama/Serial Killer

I have to admit that it's my inherent love of a good, bloody mystery that sent me to the theater to watch the latest rendition of this classic true life tale. I also can't resist Johnny Depp. Sure, his role here is pretty much the adult, i.e. graphic, version of his SLEEPY HOLLOW character, but I don't care. Nor it seems does the rest of the film audience, considering the initial box office receipts. Though both films are about mass murderers, HOLLOW is more of a ghost story, whereas FROM HELL is a brutish nightmare you're drawn into yet desperate to escape. Depp's Inspector Abberline is definitely a deeper, more well-rounded character, not a cartoon like Ichabod Crane. He manages to make them vastly different despite the great similarities. I prefer the masculine, sexy, drug-addicted Abberline to the pansy-ass, intelligent, upstanding Crane. Actually, Crane seems closer to the innocent, outcast Depp played in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS than the down-trodden inspector played here.

I'm not sure why so many of us are fascinated with murders such as these. Maybe because we just can't believe that they're true. That a human being could be so intensely cruel to another. The only reason the Ripper murders are so well known are because they were the first of their kind...and because the killer was never caught. There are many theories, the one at the core of this film being one of them, but in the end, no one really knows why Jack committed these horrible crimes. At least in this version, there's a pretty substantial reason Jack the Ripper is killing the prostitutes of Whitechapel London. Unlike in real life, where it seems he butchered them just for fun. The Hughes Brothers really get under the skin of this dark world filled with disease, poverty, brutality and misfortune...at least for those without money. The fact that we never gets to see much of London outside this miserable district and that most of the film takes place at night adds to the feeling of hopelessness and despair. We're trapped, strapped onto this brutal roller coaster ride into the depths of hell from which most do not come out the other side breathing.

"'From Hell'. Well at least they got the address right."

Our guides into this netherworld are a group of prostitutes barely making a living, with little to eat and no place to sleep. As if selling your body in Victorian England wasn't hard enough, they are harassed by a local street gang that demands money for "protection." Unfortunately, for the ladies, the Nichols gang's idea of protection is allowing them to live for the payment of a pound a week. It soon turns out that losing an eye at the hand of Nichols is the least of their problems. The brutal slayings of two of the ladies lands Inspector Abberline on the case. His method of crime solving is somewhat unusual – he claims to have visions while under the influence of opium – however, his ability to bring criminals to justice forces the doubters to show him some respect. It's immediately clear to him, as well as his partner Sergeant Godley (Coltrane), that the recent slayings are more methodical than the usual street murders. His theory that the killer must be a wealthy man with a thorough knowledge of human anatomy does not sit well with his superiors. Murder and mayhem are weaknesses of the poor, not the cultured class.

Abberline attempts to befriend the ladies, especially Mary Kelly (Graham), in hope of discovering some reason why they are being targeted by the Ripper. The story of a kidnapped friend, once a prostitute now married to a wealthy man, seems to be the key he's been looking for. He also turns to Sir William Gull (Holm), the physician to the Royal family for advice about the nature of the murders. His instincts/visions get him closer and closer to finding Jack. In fact, he does so well, he's removed from the case by his superiors in an effort to keep the Ripper's identity a secret. Though no longer on the case, Abberline continues to investigate, trying to catch Jack before Jack catches up with Mary, destroying her dreams of moving back to Ireland and a life of respectability. He's formed a genuine bond with the feisty redhead and is desperate to see one of them having a happy future. In this version of the story, the mystery is solved and the Ripper is removed permanently from society, unable to kill again. It's too bad the real case didn't end this neat and tidy. However, it doesn't exactly end happily for all.

I have to say that overall I enjoyed the experience of this film. If one can say that about something with such brutal violence. Depp gives an entrancing performance as the flawed inspector just trying to do his job in an evil, unfair world. Crime solving is the only thing that gives his life any meaning, so he tackles his job with determination, showing the ladies the only kindness to come their way in a long time. Coltrane is the other reason to see this movie. He doesn't approve of his partner's drug-addict lifestyle or understand his visions, but he is loyal and respectful and the best friend Abberline is likely to find. His presence is both quiet and powerful, giving the film its' only sane voice. I found Graham to be more annoying than helpful. Her accent was atrocious and her sensibility far too modern for the woman she was portraying. She's not bad enough to ruin the film, yet I wasn't happy to see her whenever she popped up onscreen. I just didn't believe her as an 1888 kind of gal. Everyone else does what they were paid to do, none really standing out more than the rest.

The Hughes Brothers really break out of their shells with this flick, proving they can direct more than modern urban dramas. Of course, this is an urban piece, just one that takes place a century ago. They certainly bring this period tale out of the mundane and into the gritty fire. It is both elegant and chaotic. The murders have an animalistic brutality as yet encountered onscreen. Much like the equally disturbing SE7EN, this is not a movie for the squeamish or faint of heart. Though the murders are horrific and graphic in their portrayal, they are not glorified. These woman may be "unfortunates", but no one deserves to die like that. Though many of the locations felt like a set, the cinematography and art direction are beautifully detailed and evocative. The plot is well-constructed and if you know little about the history of the case, should keep you well-enthralled. I didn't figure out who the Ripper was, though I can't say I was stunned by the revelation. In fact, I was a little disappointed. Mainly because I didn't quite buy the setup. In any case, it's an intelligent, well-crafted, moody piece that will stick with you for days. Certainly one of the better films I've seen all year.

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