Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

From Hell

Grade : A+ Year : 2001 Director : Albert & Allen Hughes Running Time : 2hr 2min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

With their new thriller “From Hell,” the Hughes Brothers- Allen and Albert- have made a film to inhabit our nightmares, to twist a usual saying by Roger Ebert about visionary works such as “Star Wars” and how they “inhabit out dreams.” Based on the controversial graphic novel (basically a novel-length comic book) by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, “From Hell” is dark, unsettling, haunting, and stomach-churning in spades, a striking and provocative descent into Hell on Earth, and a better movie for it. It’s also one of the most disreputably unconventional films in this most disappointing year; it doesn’t play out like a conventional thriller, and that will be a huge disappointment to moviegoers. The Hughes brothers unfold the story in a methodical, novelistic manner for 137 mesmerizing minutes that demands the viewer’s patience, and rewards it with one of the most compelling stories and exceptionally-mounted films of the year.

Written for the screen by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, “From Hell” is a Victorian-era “JFK,” blending the known facts and speculative theory of one of the most notorious cases ever- that of Jack the Ripper- into a paranoid, hallucinatory film. The story revolves around two people specifically- Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp), an opium-addicted Sherlock Holmes haunted by the memory of his deceased wife and visions of the Ripper’s murders before they happen, and Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), a prostitute in the Whitechapel district of London where the Ripper is brutally murdering her and her friends. The motivation- and identity- of Jack and his ritualistic is unsure to the good Inspector. Does it have to do with Kelly’s pimp, who has threatened the lives of her and her friends? Is it simply a psychologically troubled and not-so-well-educated individual? Or does it have something to do with the Royal family, and a potential scandal with one of it’s own? Regardless, Abberline is on the case, and in his research he gains the aid of his own Watson in Peter Godley (the terrific Robbie Coltrane from “The World is Not Enough”), as well as help from the Queen’s brilliant surgeon, Sir William Guil (“The Sweet Hereafter’s” Ian Holm, brilliant in a powerful role), and the contempt of his superior (“Dark City’s” Ian Richardson, compelling as always) as he comes closer to discovering the identity of Jack the Ripper. The final identity of the Ripper- as it was in the graphic novel- is more speculation than fact, but it’ll matter not when you reach the haunting finale, an ambiguous, bittersweet conclusion that will undoubtedly leave many either dumbfounded or disappointed, which will likely hurt its chances at the box-office, to which I say, “Forget you, then.”

Atmosphere is everything to a film like this, and the Hughes’ (whose previous features included 1993’s potent Urban drama “Menace II Society” and 1995’s “Dead Presidents”) make sure that “From Hell” oozes atmosphere. Start with the terrific production design by Martin Childs; the meticulous recreation of 1880s London- in Prague for this film is brilliantly aided by the haunting
cinematography of Peter Deming (with the rich lighting effects and evocative darkness achieving an almost dream-like feel that proves unshakable) and the stunner of a score by Trevor Jones, an underappreciated talent whose gift for percussive, rhythmic melody (reminiscent of his terrific score for “Dark City”) and melancholy works to great effect here. Many have already compared this to Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow”- also starring Depp, but the truth is that in story and visual style, “From Hell” far exceeds that underrated 1999 film as the new standard for Gothic atmosphere. I would even goes as far as to calling this a 21st Century “The Exorcist,” a film that not only equals that classic in quality, but also provides nerve-rattling sights, sounds (the use of sound effects here is Oscar-bait and key to the film’s success), and evocative atmosphere in a way that does not trivialize the
power of the story it’s telling.

On that note, let me discuss the violence involved in the story. By all accounts, Moore and Campbell’s depiction of the violence in the graphic novel would push the limits in any medium, and conventional thinking would assume that any translation to film would continue that level of bloodshed with gore galore. Credit then Allen and Albert Hughes as filmmakers and storytellers for their restraint, showing remarkable restraint that goes against the conventions of the genre. They spare little- if anything- in showing the gruesome aftermath of the murders, but the murders are shrouded in darkness and shadows. Some would call the move pretentious, and gore junkies will be disappointed; I call it a masterstroke that makes what we DO see more potent and chilling. You want gory thrills, check out “Hannibal” and Anthony Hopkins feasting on Ray Liotta’s occipital lobe; you want a dark, challenging mind-bender that doesn’t sell out for cheap thrills, here’s your flick. But keep in mind, it isn’t for the weak of heart, even when the violence is off-screen.

All that being said, the performances by Graham and Depp are icing on the cake. Graham- a risk-taking actress (in “Boogie Nights,” “Drugstore Cowboy”) that is usually stuck in major studio dreck recently (“Lost in Space”)- makes Mary Kelly an appealing heroine, even if she is playing a hooker. She humanizes Kelly, as we forget her profession and just hope she lives (in real life, Kelly was killed by the Ripper), and her scenes with Depp are poignant, even if you don’t completely buy a romance between the two. Depp is brilliant, acting with an intensity that recalls his live-wire work in “Donnie Brasco” and other films more than his walk-through work in “The Astronaut’s Wife” and other duds. And despite what people say, his character here is not just a variation of his work in “Sleepy Hollow” as the bumbling Ichabod Crane- Abberline is a more difficult character to warm to and get a grasp on, and Depp comes through with stellar work in a bravura performance that carries the film through.

So is “From Hell” for everyone? Hardly. If you’re easily squeamish, don’t even bother. If you can’t watch horror movies without having nightmares, this isn’t for you. If you have a thing for over-the-top blood-letting- well, you might dig it, but you might be disappointed as well. No, “From Hell” is for moviegoers who are adventurous, patient, intelligent, and preferably remember a time when thrillers were more about suspense, character, and story than pyrotechnics, CGI villains, and the latest variation of a “Die Hard” type concept. Don’t get me wrong; if you like the latter, it is possible to like “From Hell.” But as you’ve read, “From Hell” isn’t a traditional thriller, even by old standards. It’s not suspenseful per se, but it’s utterly compelling all the same, with rich characterizations and stylish production values suck you in all the same to this appropriately disturbing story. In the end, “From Hell”- like the forementioned “The Exorcist”- confirms the existence of evil…not that we needed it after September 11 anyway.

At least the evil in the spellbinding “Hell” is confined to the silver screen.

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