With the murderous villain at the center being no less than the legendary Jack the Ripper, audiences appear to have expected From Hell to be a period slasher film, if the mixed early reaction is any indication. While Allen and Albert Hughes' adaptation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic novel may not completely satisfy anyone's shallow bloodlust, it certainly has something more substantial to offer.
This speculative take on the notorious serial murderer of women isn't at its most engaging on the basic story level, however. While smartly constructed, the film is a fairly standard whodunit/police procedural in period dress. Granted, the key investigator, Inspector Fred Abberline, is hardly portrayed as the straightest of arrows, per the usual case with any character played by Johnny Depp. Playing an important role in his investigation are absinthe- and opium-induced visions that give him rare insight into the mind of the killer and his grisly crimes, thus granting the Hughes Brothers the opportunity to craft some unsettlingly stylized visuals. This side of the story, however, also gives scripters Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias room to haul in the reliable cop movie clichÃ© of having the superior officer taking our hero off of the case, which is but one distracting concession to convention; the main one is a forced romance between Aberline and Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), the most impossibly clean (in every sense) prostitute to ever to strut the squalid streets in the 19th century London ghetto.
Given that the sleekness the Hughes Brothers lend the film is it's greatest virtue, it is tempting to say that From Hell is a case of style over substance, but to say that is to deny the substance in the style. The Graham character's unnatural (if conceptually understandable) glow notwithstanding, the grimy details of the period are convincingly recreated. More importantly, though, the murder scenes are disturbing and intense without resorting to extreme gore; stylish minimalism such as glints of light reflecting off of a blade and brief shots of blood flow amid the foggy shadows of night create a palpable air of suspense and menace.
Less patient viewers (read: most audiences) may take issue with the less-than-nailbiting pace, not to mention there isn't a traditional fright to be had. But cheap, rapid-fire scares is not what the Hughes Brothers are concerned with; From Hell is about transporting one to a different time and place as well and soaking one into its climate of fear and dread--which, given current events, is all the more relatable and immediate. What the film may lack in human warmth (though the performances, from Depp and Graham down to Ian Holm and Jason Flemyng in supporting roles, are strong) and connection it compensates for in its creation of an immersive and haunting cinematic world. The audience doesn't simply watch the film; this lushly mounted production washes over the viewer and makes them live this dark, dangerous time in history.
RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)
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