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'From Hell'

Blood and shadows: 'From Hell' is all gore and atmosphere

Friday, October 19, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"From Hell" is not for the squeamish.

'From Hell'

RATING: R for strong violence/gore, sexuality, language and drug use

STARRING: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham

DIRECTORS: Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes

WEB SITE: www.fromhellmovie.com



Primitive lobotomies are performed, and that's in the respected Royal London Hospital. Out on the dim cobblestone streets, throats are sliced open. Blood noisily gurgles and organs are extracted from bodies with a sucking sound. Long knives glisten with blood. A chunk of human kidney arrives in a box with a note that Jack the Ripper fried and ate the other piece (no mention of a nice Chianti, however).

You can't expect a story about Jack the Ripper to be, well, bloodless, but directors Albert and Allen Hughes -- better known as the Hughes brothers -- lay it on mighty thick. "From Hell," based on Alan Moore's 1999 graphic novel, with drawings by artist Eddie Campbell, is all style, smoke, atmosphere, shadows and convincing transformation of modern-day Prague into 1888 London.

Although Jack the Ripper was never caught after killing and mutilating at least five (some accounts say seven or eight) prostitutes, "From Hell" identifies him and gives him a motive. It also casts a wide net in a cover-up conspiracy that takes us into the inner sanctums of Buckingham Palace and the Freemasons.

"From Hell" stars Johnny Depp as Inspector Abberline, a lonely widower with working-class roots who is addicted to opium, which gives him clairvoyant insights into the murders. He is assigned to the seedy Whitechapel district, terrorized by Jack the Ripper. Assisting in the hunt is Sgt. Godley (Robbie Coltrane), a Shakespeare-loving bear of a man who routinely rousts his friend from opium dens.

Jack seems to be focusing on a group of five prostitutes who are already under siege from goons on the street. They live a grim existence, even sometimes sleeping upright, tied together on a bench.

Abberline begins to suspect the killer is an educated, wealthy man who has medical knowledge, but his superior tries to steer him away from that theory. He turns to Dr. Gull (Ian Holm), physician to the royal family, for advice on the methods and manner of death.

The investigation brings Jack closer to one of the prostitutes, flame-haired Mary (Heather Graham), a native of Ireland who came to England as a girl. As Jack the Ripper picks off her fellow street walkers, Mary seems headed for possible, if not certain, death.

The Hughes brothers, talented twins whose credits include "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents," say they've been fascinated by the murders since age 7. That's when they saw a profile of the killer on Leonard Nimoy's "In Search Of."

They wanted to humanize the victims, but the prostitutes are barely indistinguishable from one another. There's the one whose wooden coffin cracks open to show her ravaged throat, the one who prefers women, the one played by Graham, the French hooker who appears late in the game and the others. And there's another woman on the fringe of their circle who seems to have attained respectability but pays a high price for it.

By trying to concentrate on this group, and not doing it very well, the Hugheses neglect or muddy the rest of the story. If Jack became the first tabloid star, you don't get a good sense of it here. The London police reportedly received hundreds of letters from people claiming to be the killer, but the one "From Hell" was considered authentic.

But if the task is to review the movie that was made, and not the one that could have been made, "From Hell" is often confusing and over the top.

It assumes moviegoers magically know where various characters fit into the police hierarchy and never seriously weighs other suspects.

Depp, here using a working-class accent, makes a sympathetic and smart, if flawed, hero. Graham's accent is shaky, and she manages an awfully creamy skin for someone who washes up in the public fountain and doesn't follow the food pyramid. Coltrane, as always, lends a vivid, big presence to the proceedings.

But they're all secondary to the dramatic canvas the brothers have painted in Prague. I just wish they, and writers Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, had paid more attention to guile and less to gore.

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