Hughes bros. make hellish film

by Sarah Betts | 10/31/01 6:00am

Johnny Depp and Heather Graham deliver disappointingly flat performances in "From Hell," a thriller inspired by the Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper.

Depp plays Frederick Abberline, a moody, opium-addict investigator whose bouts of clairvoyance help him solve the murders of five prostitutes in late 19th-century London. In the process, he uncovers a massive conspiracy involving everyone from the Queen downward and falls for Graham's Mary Kelly, a fellow prostitute and friend of the murdered women.

As Abberline, Depp is predictably brooding, tortured and cynical. He is a stock character, the man embittered by a tragic secret who feels a moral compulsion to give others the help he can't give himself. Depp doesn't deviate from this stereotype, and though his opium dream sequences are creatively shot and visually rich, his performance lacks the passion necessary to generate any real sympathy for him.

Graham, too, is unconvincing. Her character is a "hooker with a heart of gold," and is far too sugary and pure to be a realistic prostitute. This isn't helped by the blatant contrast between Mary and her sisters on the streets -- they are grime-covered and bawdy, while Graham remains curiously clean.

The romance that develops between Mary and Abberline is uninspiring, and that's probably why it is given very little screen time. They seem to fall in love because the plot dictates it. Their romance is as devoid of nuance and dimension as their characters are; it is a token romance that never becomes more.

Depp and Graham shouldn't get all the blame, though. The plot is fantastical, and had the characters been at all believable, they would have been out of place.

The movie concentrates on the corruption beneath the surface of prudish Victorian England. This is an interesting point; undoubtedly this period had more than its share of covert sinners. Unfortunately, the movie takes this precept and runs with it, ending in an absurd tangle involving the royal family, the Freemasons, the police department, street low-lives and even an heir in disguise. It is overkill.

The actual Jack the Ripper was never caught; the mystery is still unsolved. "From Hell" doesn't pretend, however, to offer a plausible theory about Jack's identity and motives -- it is more of an abstract fantasy loosely inspired by a real-life event. As such, it has its good points. It follows in the classic Gothic-horror tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, existing in the realm between fear and insanity. Also, the killings are horrifying without being excessively gory -- with one notable exception.

The cinematography is the one redeeming feature of this movie. The images are sharp and brilliantly colored, and the scenes are saturated in reds and blacks, traditional colors of terror. It was filmed in Prague, and the street scenes evoke the damp, dirty, foggy London of the period. Also, "From Hell" earns points for understanding that in horror movies, what is hidden is much scarier than what is openly visible. It is not until the very end that the audience is actually shown Jack the Ripper committing a murder.

As a thriller, though, it loses much of its power because we already know too much about the outcome -- the prostitutes are going to be murdered. It is just a question of when and how. The main mystery, the identity of the killer, is suspenseful but is solved too quickly and without enough resolution, and the movie ends with fairy-tale elements and a Hamlet quote that are painfully out of touch with the rest of the film.

Overall, "From Hell" is a disappointment because it is capable of better things. The story of Jack the Ripper is significant and compelling -- after all, he is the first serial killer. It seems like a good base for a movie, but with an unbelievable plot and poor acting, this one flops.

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