In blood-red light and its shadows, directors Albert and Allen Hughes (American Pimp, Dead Presidents) illustrate the legend of the late-19th century serial killer known only as Jack the Ripper with ironically dark brilliance as an allegory, a grimly entertaining tale that cuts like a surgeon’s scalpel to reveal the progressively profound implications hidden within.
On the surface, From Hell is a whodunit from the land and period of Sherlock Holmes. But Johnny Depp’s Inspector Abberline has little more than vocation and a baffled, loyal sidekick (Robbie Coltrane’s trusty Sergeant Godley) in common with Holmes. Abberline is a professional police officer — with a working-class Cockney accent — not a gentleman amateur. He solves his cases through opium-inspired visions, not deductive logic. And he has an interest in women that Holmes never seems to demonstrate. The woman in question is an endangered street whore (the Ripper’s prey and delicacy of choice) named Mary Kelly (Heather Graham).
From Hell offers us a full meal of tasty red herrings, the biggest luring us to believe that this is actually just a mystery movie. Below Abberline’s clues lies (aptly for the period) the Dickensian melodrama of the detective and the prostitutes, all more or less at the dubious mercy of those vicious and/or titled enough to grasp money and power. Still deeper, From Hell indicts those who might call themselves masters of the universe (gentlemen Freemasons and royalty) with the 19th century’s loss of innocence that, according to the Ripper himself, “gave birth to the 20th century.”
The Hughes brothers poetically paint late-19th century London as an underworld long fallen from grace. But occasionally From Hell’s melodrama and conspiracy theories go over the top or flounder into clichés. Though it lacks the power and threat of disguised class critiques like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) or Eyes Wide Shut (1999), From Hell is far from damned.
Visit the official From Hell Web site at www.fromhellmovie.com.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at firstname.lastname@example.org.