Archive for Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Old Jack city

October 17, 2001

Jack the Ripper may not have been the first serial killer ever, but he was certainly the first serial killer of the media age. His 1888 exploits in London's Whitechapel slums were fodder for tabloid newspapers, making him a legend even while he was still committing his crimes. The fact that his identity remains unknown has only added to the endless fascination with his story.

There have been dozens of movies (possibly hundreds) dealing with the Ripper murders, the latest of which is "From Hell," a stylish mix of fact and fiction based on the popular graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Johnny Depp plays Inspector Fred Abberline, an opium-addicted policeman whose visions include premonitions about the killings. With the help of his sympathetic boss (Robbie Coltrane) and a kindly retired physician (Ian Holm), Abberline doggedly investigates the case, falling in love with one of the intended victims, Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), in the process. The more Abberline learns, however, the more resistance he encounters, as he discovers that the murders are not the work of a random madman, but are being directed by the most powerful people in England.

That last bit will perk up the ears of historians, who have been debating Saucy Jack's activities for more than a century. The theory put forth in "From Hell" is certainly outrageous (though by no means new), involving Freemasons and syphilitic royals, and its accuracy is questionable at best. It makes for a great story, though, which is what all the people behind this movie are really concerned with. It just wouldn't be any fun if Jack the Ripper turned out to be some garden-variety psycho with a cool knife collection.

The movie's directors, twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes, are best known for urban street dramas like "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents," so they might initially seem like a strange choice to helm a tale set in Victorian London. One look at their portrayal of Whitechapel should clear up any confusion about that, however this is basically a 19th Century version of the 'hood, with poverty, violence and oppression a part of everyday life. Although they still hold back a little in showing just how squalid conditions really were, the Hughes brothers get closer than most filmmakers in reminding viewers of what the era was like for anyone who wasn't lucky enough to be born into the right social class.

They also get pretty graphic in their re-enactments of the murders, backing off only from the most extremely gory details. This approach could be viewed as gratuitous, but it does add a touch of realism to a story that has been too heavily mythologized during the years. The sheer visceral terror of the attacks pushes "From Hell" into the realm of a horror movie, a slasher flick that focuses on the victims as much as on the killer. It's also a mystery, with its dedication to piecing together clues, and a love story about a pair of attractive outcasts thrown together by adversity.

While the horror and mystery elements are extremely well done, the love story is a mess, largely because Depp and Graham are given such paper-thin characters to work with. They may be the leads, but they are completely overshadowed by supporting actors like Holm, Coltrane and Ian Richardson, who simply have better material. The script by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias is generally witty and intelligent, but their interests clearly do not lie with the two stars and their perfunctory romance. It's a waste of a couple of talented actors.

When "From Hell" is on, however, it's an exciting, energetic film with lots of intriguing (if occasionally ludicrous) twists. It also looks fantastic, thanks in part to Peter Deming's lush cinematography, which is often saturated in red and black, the colors of blood and death. Those were, after all, Jack the Ripper's true colors, no matter who he really was.

  • **
  • "From Hell" is rated R.

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