Directed by: The Hughes Brothers
Starring: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Robbie Coltrane, Ian Holm
This is pure, unadulterated, flat-out horror film making at its best -- and from an unexpected quarter, the Hughes Brothers (Albert and Allen), who are known for a very different type of movie with Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. Their take on the film seems to be that they approached Whitechapel of Victorian London much as they might any other ghetto. And there's some sense to that, but I think the real key to the success of their film is similar to what sometimes happens when a foreign director takes on a subject that is not native to him. Think of the way the British John Schlesinger tackled America with Midnight Cowboy and you'll see what I mean -- the freshness of perception from an outside point of view. Moreover, the Hughes Brothers' version of the Alan Moore graphic novel never forgets its title, From Hell, and presents us with a vivid picture that often seems as if that indeed is where the film takes place. There is scarcely anything like normalcy and rarely a hint of sunlight. The skies are either glowing red or pitch black. The squalor of the slums in which most of the characters live is unrelenting. The drawing rooms of the wealthy house disturbing pictures of persons suffering from various kinds of disfiguring diseases. John Merrick (the "Elephant Man") is put on display in order to raise money for a hospital. It's hard to tell morgue and hospital apart. Nearly every inch of the film is disturbing in some way. This is no cozy Victorian thriller, but a savage indictment of a thoroughly corrupt society that spawned Jack the Ripper. Instead of a reassuring Holmes and Watson, we have the opium-, laudanum-, and absinthe-addicted Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp, once again proving he can play anything), who also has psychic visions, and the gruff Sergeant Godly (Robbie Coltrane), who does his best to keep his boss out of trouble. (True, Holmes was a cocaine addict, but he was never depicted as this extreme.) The set-up is largely in keeping with standard Ripper fact and fiction -- prostitutes (euphemistically called "unfortunates") are being gruesomely murdered and mutilated in London's Whitechapel district. In this instance, Inspector Abberline is put on the case and almost immediately runs afoul of the prejudices of his superiors when he discerns that the killer must be an educated man and possibly a surgeon. This isn't what they want to hear -- they want a lower class murderer, and if it could be a foreigner or, especially, a Jew, so much the better. Abberline himself is always having his working-class origins thrown in his face in the course of his investigations and has to resort to unorthodox means to even secure some of his evidence (he may be the original maverick cop). For a film so utterly bleak -- and ultimately downbeat, but not depressing -- From Hell manages to retain a sense of humanity and decency in the characters of Abberline and Godly, and also from, yes, the prostitute with the heart of gold in Mary Kelly (Heather Graham). It is significant that these characters are outside the realm of the society being held accountable. But at heart, From Hell is a horror picture and it constantly manages to deliver the goods. The shock effects are all first-rate, and the horror content is not minimized. While the film is unflinching in much of its grotesquerie, the Hughes Brothers have clearly learned from the masters of the genre, achieving their most unsettling effects by suggestion and images that are barely glimpsed. By rights it should become a classic of the genre in years to come, but be warned, it's pretty strong stuff.