Crossing the boundaries of preconceived genres has become a popular practice, for a movie that ignores conventional demographics and categories generates buzz. Such is the truth for “From Hell,” the Hughes Brothers” (“Menace II Society”) dark, gruesome and visually captivating account of Jack the Ripper”s killing spree in 1888. The film bridges the gap between a Sherlock Holmes film and a slasher flick against the dark and dingy setting of London, and with a few exceptions, the bridge holds.
Johnny Depp plays Inspector Frederick Abberline of Scotland Yard, who is given the task of tracking down this serial killer who not only murders but meticulously and surgically mutilates prostitutes in London”s Whitechapel district. Abberline, aside from being an inspector, is a clairvoyant opium addict, who has visions of future events during drug-induced unconsciousness. In fact, he is so fond of his trips to the opium parlor that he must be fetched from time to time by Sergeant Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane, “Nuns on the Run,” “Goldeneye”), the Watson to Abberline”s Holmes. The two men, with the help of Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), a prostitute who may become Jack”s next victim at any time and Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), a brilliant physician, attempt to predict the killer”s next move while appeasing their superiors, who are anxious to control the investigation and prevent any embarrassing facts from surfacing.
Based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell”s graphic novel series (a.k.a. comic book) of the same name, “From Hell” is rich in its imagery, showing us the dark skyline of London set against the smog filled, fiery sunset that hangs over the city as well as the dank and dangerous cobblestone alleys of Whitechapel, filled with knife-wielding street gangs. We almost feel like we are in Hell as the eerie green lanterns of Jack”s carriage, driven by a squirrely and timid Jason Flemyng (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”), creeps down the street.
Depp basically gives us a reprisal of his portrayal of Ichabod Crane from Tim Burton”s “Sleepy Hollow,” but honestly, that”s just fine. He plays the insightful but disobedient public servant with the same commanding presence, and although the self-deprecating humor is not as prevalent, he is still fun to watch. Coltrane provides most of the comic relief in the film, who along with Holm, play believable characters that hold the movie together. Although Heather Graham makes a valiant and surprisingly successful effort, it”s just too hard to accept that she is the only physically attractive, well groomed prostitute who has all of her teeth.
The violence and gore of the film is considerable, with an up-close and personal look at every tear of the knife and every stomach-turning squelch noise of guts being torn or a throat being cut. To clarify, “From Hell” is to stabbings as “High Fidelity” is to pop culture references. The ugliness of the murders and the viciousness of Jack as well as the street gangs are illustrated in painstaking detail, and it captures the cover-your-eyes-and-hide feel of a good horror movie.
However, the plot drags throughout much of the middle of the film, and it feels as though the movie is just drifting along, hoping to catch the current of excitement. The Hughes Brothers get stuck tying the different elements of the plot together and forget to keep it moving forward, resulting in some loss of interest. Like so many visually stunning films, “From Hell” doesn”t deliver an equal share of creativity and subtlety when it comes to other aspects.
Despite these shortcomings, this detective-horror hybrid has a unique feel to it, and it is a testament to the range of the Hughes Brothers, who have successfully branched out from their earlier work to tackle this tale of the precursor to the modern serial killer, who “gave birth to the 20th century.”