Now playing: From Hell

Posted: Monday, October 22, 2001

Imagine Sherlock Holmes as a drug addicted, 1890's version of Miss Cleo. Imagine Seven set at the turn of the century. Imagine a complicated conspiracy that rivals anything Oliver Stone could come up with. Finally, imagine Jack the Ripper, at last given his cinematic due with a gorgeous and highly entertaining, though periodically frustrating piece of filmmaking.

Johnny Depp plays Inspector Abberline, top investigator and dope fiend, who is called in when local prostitutes start showing up dead. Depp is an extremely talented actor, especially in that he is able to distinguish this character so distinctly from the last quirky, latter century British investigator he played in Sleepy Hollow. It helps the distinction that From Hell is no family friendly, Burton-esque weird fest; it really does it's title justice. Part of Abberline's unique talent comes from a subtle sort of ESP that seems to manifest itself during his frequent laudanum/Absinthe binges. He literally sees the murders before they happen, though he's apparently unable to do anything to prevent them. The psychic angle was an interesting one to take, and it does play an important part in the investigation toward the end, but ultimately I think it shows laziness on the part of the screenwriters. The audience is asked to take leaps of faith in deduction; problems that could have be solved conventionally with a little more imagination are given over to "visions."

Despite that failing, the screenwriters have come up with a wonderfully crafted puzzle that comes together neatly, piece by piece as the movie goes on, until the final piece is dropped and the entire picture is revealed. It's a brand new take on the Ripper mythology that takes pieces of what is known and spins them to give the whole affair a greater sense of importance than that of a lone psycho offing hookers in the red light district. I don't want to say any more than that lest I give it all away.

There are twists and turns and then there are twists and turns. This movie can be confusing given the visions and opium-addled dreams; the dark alleys and frustratingly similar looking characters. That said, if the film starts to make no sense at all; if characters who died an hour ago start walking around, happy as you please; if Johnny Depp goes from not knowing Heather Graham's name to loving her deeply in the space of five minutes, get up and go get the manager. The theater where I saw From Hell apparently experienced more than the usual amount of confusion while putting the movie together after it arrived from the distributor. The first few reels were correct, and the last reel was correct, but the middle was a roller coaster ride of continuity that puts Pulp Fiction to shame. I understand that the problem has been corrected, and the theater was very gracious about refunding our money, but you might be on the watch all the same. Once the cards get that mixed up, it's hard to put them all back in order again.

One of the more interesting sidelines to the film is in the choice of directors. Rather than farming this out to some up and comer with a couple of slasher flicks on his resume, or giving it to an austere Brit who could really wallow in the turn-of-the-century London setting, the studio turned this story over to the Hughes brothers. The Hughes brothers, if you don't recognize the name, are best known for the Boyz In The Hood-companion piece Menace To Society. That two streetwise, twenty-something black brothers were given a project where the streets are cobblestone and the only real possibility of a black character would be as a servant or streetwalker (they cast black actors for neither) is a real testament to how far Hollywood is coming. Maybe we are making strides in this whole race conundrum. Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington are great actors, not great black actors, and it seems that we are now hiring directors based on their talent, not the color of their skin.

From Hell is a good movie. I say that, of course, after having had to take sections of the film and rearrange them in my head later, so you might want to take that with a grain of salt. The scenery is beautiful, almost painterly at times. The acting is well done and believable, and the story is creative and imaginative. On the other hand, From Hell is, perhaps, the grisliest movie I've seen since Seven. Though the gore is appropriate, it is definitely not for the faint of heart or weak stomached. Jack the Ripper terrified 1890's London and was never caught. Now, more than a century later, it is very unlikely that the case will ever really be solved, but the Hughes brothers have taken a commendable stab at it (sorry, I couldn't resist). Go see the movie and, assuming you don't get the projectionist's re-edited version, it should get you right in the mood for trick-or-treating. Grade: B+

From Hell is rated R for sexual situations and extreme violence.

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