from hell20th Century Fox

“Laudanum is a derivative opium. Apart from doctors and addicts, not many would be able to detect it. How long have you been chasing the dragon, Inspector?”

It is 1888 in London, and the unfortunate poor lead horrifying lives in the city’s deadliest slum, Whitechapel. Harassed by gangs and forced to walk the streets for a living, Mary Kelly and her small group of companions trudge on through this daily misery, their only consolation being that things can’t get any worse. Yet things somehow do when their friend Ann is kidnapped and they are drawn into a conspiracy with links higher up than they could possibly imagine. The kidnapping is soon follwoed by the gruesome murder of another woman, Polly, and it becomes apparent that they are being hunted down, one by one. Sinister even by Whitechapel standards, the murder grabs the attention of Inspector Fred Abberline, a brilliant yet troubled man whose police work is often aided by his psychic abilities. Abberline becomes deeply involved with the case, which takes on personal meaning to him when he and Mary begin to fall in love…

In the first couple of years into the 21st Century, there seemed to have been a bit of a mini-explosion of neo-Gothic style horror movies hitting the theater. I don’t know whether it was deliberate; what I do know is, from between the years 1999 through about 2001 or so, the styles and feel, if not the actual settings, hearkened back to the Hammer and William Castle style of Gothic movies and such. From Hell happened to be one of those movies.

Little bit of back story: From Hell was originally a serial that ran between the years 1989 and 1996, by uber-writer Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell, that speculated on the identity of Jack the Ripper. You might have heard of him? Anyway, the original serial was collected in 1999 in a massive trade paperback. And in 2001, the Hughes Brothers team of movie magic makers presumably saw the title in a bookstore, scanned over the back cover descript, and decided to make a movie “loosely based” on this funnybook serial. Seriously, I remember reading an interview with the directors, where they pretty much said they gave approximately no f-bombs as to whether or not the comic fans find their movie to be faithful or not. I have yet to actually read that collected book; from my understanding, though, given the complexities of the finished product, any kind of adaptation would have been nigh-impossible. And, even if they did do a fantastic job in making it exactly like the source material, Alan Moore would have hated it anyway. Tis the Bearded One’s nature.

Anyway, as a movie, From Hell is a slow burning Victorian Gothic mystery, searching for the identity of Jack the Ripper, and possibly uncovering more than the detectives were bargaining for. The story takes its times, weaves back and forth, and finally leaving you with more questions than answers, really. Heather Graham was a surprising choice, given that I didn’t really buy her as one of the prostitutes on Whitechapel (she had to be the cleanest 19th Century whore going), while Johnny Depp was…well, he was at his Depp-iest, kind of a nifty precursor to his star turn as Captain Jack Sparrow to come. The visuals were great, nice and dark and atmospheric, and set the tone perfectly for the time period. However, what could have been really good only turned out to be just good. I never really thought that it was going to be a mind-blower, but still felt a bit underwhelmed when the end credits rolled. Otherwise, overall, From Hell is a good period mystery thriller, and worth checking out some night.