From Hell Review

Posted: October 27, 2013 by moviebuff801 in moviebuff801's Movie Reviews, Time Capsule Reviews

Release Date: October 19th, 2001

Running Time: 2 hours and 2 minutes

Written by: Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias

Directed by: The Hughes Brothers

Starring: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Robbie Coltrane, Ian Holm

By: Michael “MovieBuff801” Dennos

From Hell couldn’t be a more apt title for this 2001 adaptation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel, which is a fictional account of the infamous Jack the Ripper slayings which plagued London in 1888.  Not only does it reference the self-authored letter that the Ripper sent to the police in the midst of all his bloodshed, it also feels like a demented address stamp imprinted on the film.  From the often times chilling direction from The Hughes Brothers, the near-nightmarish cinematography and art direction (red and black are very prevalent colors throughout) and a haunting score by Trevor Jones, rarely does a minute go by in this film where it doesn’t feel like we’ve descended into and are spending two hours in Hell itself.  Talk about an atmospheric movie.

When the film opens, we follow Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and her friends, a small group of London prostitutes struggling through life and in debt to their ruthless john named McQueen (David Schofield).  One of their own named Ann Crook is suddenly abducted by a mysterious group of men one day, and soon after, these prostitutes’ lives come in danger when one of them is murdered in a most gruesome fashion.  The brilliant, yet troubled, Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp) is soon assigned to the case, and along with Sergeant Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), investigates the work of a killer who’s soon to be called Jack the Ripper.  All of the Ripper’s victims seem to be confined to Mary’s group of friends, which makes Ms. Kelly a person of interest to Abberline, in more ways than one.  However, the Ripper’s sickening method of removing his victims’ inner organs leads Abberline to believe that they’re not just dealing with some random lunatic, but rather an educated man with a working knowledge of human anatomy.  That brings Abberline to Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), the Royal Family’s physician, who Abberline gets to consult on the case.  To add to the horrific nature of the case, Abberline has been experiencing visions of the murders before they happen due to his opium addiction, prompting his sanity to be called into question by his superiors, which entails Abberline having to fight to stay on the case.

As I’ve already pointed out, one of the biggest things to note about From Hell, and something that should be true about any effective horror film, is that its atmosphere is the first thing that draws you into it.  I’ve seen this film quite a few times by now and it never fails to completely hold me in its grasp from beginning to end.  That, I suppose, has to be a testament to just how good From Hell really is.  True, it’s mainly just your basic murder mystery, but like all genre movies worth their salt, From Hell is one that’s done very, very well.  I understand that this is the film that put Alan Moore in his immovable state of opposition against any adaptation of any of his graphic novels, but speaking as someone who’s judging it as just a movie (because I haven’t read the graphic novel), this is one strong piece of work.

Since this movie came out before Johnny Depp’s full-blown leap into eccentricity, we get a more straightforward and understated performance from him here, and he’s very compelling as Abberline.  He showcases a smart and subdued resolve in the character that’s intriguing, especially in comparison with his portrayal of Ichabod Crane two years earlier in Sleepy Hollow.  In a way, Crane and Abberline are opposite sides of the same coin; both are detectives haunted by demons in their pasts, but those demons have manifested themselves differently in how they carry about their lives now.  Curiously, there’s a similarity in that both characters are plagued by terrifying dreams.  I seriously doubt it was intended this way, but From Hell is an interesting companion piece to Sleepy Hollow.  As much as I like Johnny Depp, I admit I’m a bit tired of his current obsession with playing characters who require copious amounts of make-up, so it’s always nice to go back and watch a movie like this and be reminded just how good he can be when playing it straight.  Heather Graham is really good here, too; she is given the opportunity to create a character here, rather than just be a helpless woman who waits around to cross paths with the killer.  Robbie Coltrane is effective as the second in command to Abberline, but also adding his own touch to the trope of “the guy we can always count on.”  And, without naming the actor, the person who winds up being unmasked as Jack the Ripper is very good as well, both in their deceptive facade and when they’re allowed to fully embrace the soul-crushing sense of evil inherent with Jack the Ripper.  All in all, this is a very well-acted film.

Directed by The Hughes Brothers (Albert and Allen), From Hell is one of those films that grabs you in a vice-like grip just from its style alone.  Victorian London really does look and feel like Hell in this film, and it’s because of these guys.  From Hell is definitely stylish, but in a way that’s not so in-your-face.  The Hughes Brothers definitely demonstrate a clear sense of control throughout; they want to provide you with an under-your-skin experience, and that’s exactly what they accomplish.  Of particular note are Abberline’s opium-induced and laced dream sequences, which are a staple of this film’s creepiness throughout.  See, this is the kind of stuff I look for and want in my horror/suspense films, because a director can put in as much gore or as many jump scares as they want, but if there’s no sustained atmosphere to hold it all together, then the level of effectiveness isn’t going to be high at all.  Fortunately, The Hughes Brothers seem to know this, and create a film that can border on hypnotizing at times.  Another, small thing that they do that I think is cool is that when the identity of Jack the Ripper is revealed, that person’s eyes suddenly turn black in the middle of the scene.  I actually don’t think I noticed that until my second viewing, so I applaud the Hughes’ for slipping it in so subtly.

From Hell may fall just short of being great due a slightly slow pace at the beginning and a scene near the middle where it feels like a subplot is being introduced when in fact it isn’t, but this is still a very strong film that does a great job at immersing you in the experience that it is while also providing a compelling look at one of crime history’s most infamous chapters.

***1/2 /****

  1. vinnieh says:

    Excellent review, looks like a great movie to watch in the days leading up to Halloween.

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