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From Hell
Reviewed by Kenn McCracken, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Allen Hughes and Albert Hughes (directors)
Genre:   Horror
Released:   October 19, 2001
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

"How long have you been chasing the dragon?"

- Sir William Gull

From Hell is widely regarded as one of the best serialized graphic novels -- that's comic books to you and me -- of the modern era, right up there with Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns. It is a brilliantly told, expertly researched document of the Jack the Ripper killings in Whitechapel, London, in 1888, a 500 page masterpiece by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.

But this isn't about the comic book, as much as it could be; it instead concerns the new film, sharing the same name as the graphic novel. Unlike most other comic properties, though, this one stays true to the source -- as much as possible given a two hour time frame, that is. Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, best known as the writers and directors of Dead Presidents and Menace II Society, the story penned by Moore and Campbell and adapted for the screen by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias comes to life in gloriously dark and grim fashion.

As many people as there are that know the story of Jack the Ripper, the first 'serial killer,' there is a notable lack of punctuation to the tale. While many theories abound -- he was a common Londoner, a doctor, a sick British prince -- there is no definitive answer to the identity of the killer. Moore, though, weaves all of the theories into an epic exploration of the mystery, and his telling is ultimately one of the most interesting and satisfying stories, not just of the Ripper but also of the period.

An initial criticism of the movie was the casting of Johnny Depp in the role of drug-addicted widower Inspector Abberline (for those comic readers out there, one of the few changes made from paper to screen). He was, after all, coming off of roles in Blow (as drug addict) and Sleepy Hollow (a period piece, as detective). On your way into the theater, feel free to focus on these images all you like; within minutes, the thoughts will be gone. Ted Demme and Tim Burton painted pictures that were darkly comic (and in Burton's case more than a little wacky); the Hughes brothers are working with brushes and oils more touched with the street, and Depp in turn gives one of his most darkly realistic performances ever.

The rest of the cast is outstanding as well. Heather Graham, though normally a quick target for any bad acting criticisms that I might have, turns in a fine performance as Mary Kelly, the (supposed) fifth victim of Jack the Ripper. Robbie Coltrane's Sergeant Godley is lightly played as the comic relief of the movie; his Shakespeare quoting, consistently over the heads of those around him, is not only subtly played, but also indicative of the period. Perhaps the best performance of all, though, is turned in by Ian Holm as Sir William Gull, the royal physician.

What may be the most amazing thing about the film is the realism that suffuses everything, from the story to the sets to the culture on display. While a large part of this can be attributed to Moore (the appendices in the books are as fascinating as the story itself), credit must also be given to the directors. Although filmed in Prague, you might never know that it wasn't really London if not informed otherwise. Reportedly, the brothers referred to photographs, history books, and the graphic novels in constructing each scene and set. Their effort shows; for two hours, it is too easy to become immersed in the soot and ash of London, to trod the brick path, to smell the horse manure.

As might be expected, given the story, there are some intense moments in the film. The violence feels both more and less graphic than it really is; there are moments in the film that are guaranteed to turn heads, if not stomachs. Still, as brutal as those moments are, there is a certain unflinching sensitivity to them; the blood is not presented to shock, but rather to document, to record a moment with honesty.

There is a fine line, at times, between fiction and reality. While definitely a fictionalized account of the Ripper and his story, there are moments when it almost feels more like a documentary told through fiction. The film is equally cinematic and real, with even the most fantastic moments seemingly ripped from a history book. Not even the score intrudes on the moments, appropriately heightening the atmosphere without stepping into the spotlight.

The one major difference between the film and the graphic novel is the focus of the story. While Moore reveals the identity of Jack almost immediately, the film forces you to wait, wondering if the killer will ever stand unmasked. This turns what was originally a blunt exploration of what happened (and, perhaps more importantly, why) into a traditional, suspenseful whodunnit mystery. While purists may bemoan the shift in tone, it actually works better this way, given the medium. The ending, from what was overheard in the lobby after the film, is appropriately shocking and, presumably, satisfying, as all the pieces put in motion throughout the film fall into place.

From Hell will probably not make it into the pantheon of film on a parallel with its source, but it is definitely worthy of sharing the same name. With a strong cast, beautiful cinematography, and outstanding direction, the film deserves notice as more than a horror film. With any luck, it will get the Hughes brothers known as more than "black directors" -- and perhaps even draw attention to the graphic novels.

Kenn McCracken is Comics Editor for RevolutionSF.

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