From Hell, a new thriller from the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, DeadPresidents) plays like a Hammer Horror production if done by David Fincher(Seven). While the screenplay suffers from biting off more than it can chew,appealing lead performances coupled with a dour but fascinating atmosphere makethe movie definitely worth a look.
The movie takes place in the London slum of Whitechapel, circa 1888. Someoneis murdering prostitutes in ways that are deemed harsh even by Whitechapel’sstandards. With little in the way of clues, leads or witnesses to build aninvestigation on, Sgt. Godley (Robbie Coltrane) calls on police inspector FredAbberline (Johnny Depp). Abberline is an inspector who is also clairvoyant. Heuses such drugs as opium and absinthe to figure out how murders take place.While the initial signs point to a gang that has been harassing the group ofprostitutes that are being killed one by one, Abberline begins to suspectotherwise due to the surgical precision the killer is using on his victims. Overtime, he becomes convinced that this is a murderer is an educated man, onedriven by a hidden agenda.
Directors Albert and Allen Hughes do a great job with getting the atmosphereof a 19th century London slum right. In many ways, the dreariness and despairthat hangs over Whitechapel isn’t all that different than those captured inSociety or Presidents. If you have seen those two films, then you know that theHughes brothers have an eye for detail that puts you right in the middle of itall. Helped greatly by Martin Childs’ production design and Peter Deming’s richcinematography, the Hughes brothers handsomely pay homage to the Hammer Horrorflicks of the 1960s and 70s while applying their trademark flourishes ofstylized and graphic violence (this is not a film for the squeamish) aswell.
Where this film differs from the brothers’ previous two works is in the storydepartment. Menace and Presidents were uncompromising, straightforward and ableto relate to the viewer on a personal level. The same can’t be said about FromHell. Working from a rather dense graphic novel by Alan Moore and EddieCampbell, screenwriters Rafael Yglesias (Fearless) and Terry Hayes (The RoadWarrior) attempt to cover a lot of ground in two hours. A straightforwardmystery involving Abberline tracking down Jack the Ripper would have been morethan sufficient. But added on top of that are subplots involving the RoyalFamily and a blooming romance between Abberline and Mary (Heather Graham), oneof the prostitutes. The story thread involving the Royals is intriguing butslightly underdeveloped. The romance is a waste of time.
While the characters are as slight as the story is dense, the performances byDepp, Coltrane and Ian Holm (as a doctor Abberline consults on the murders) aresolid enough to connect with the viewer. Alas, the same can’t be said aboutHeather Graham, who’s just a little too glamorous to be convincing as a 19thcentury prostitute working the slums of London. Having no character dimension tospeak of is also another debit.
From Hell is a movie in which the atmosphere deserves top billing. It’s thelook and feel of the film that grabs you, sadly not its narrative. This is afilm whose artistic beauty will suffer a great deal when it hits home video. Ifyou can stomach the graphic violence and accept the story and characterisationsas second-tier, you will find enough in From Hell to make it a worthwhile visitto the big screen.