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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, October 19, 2001

Movie Scene
Hughes brothers leap with classy thriller 'From Hell'

By Marshall Fine
The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

You can't help but admire the quantum leap forward in filmmaking craft that "From Hell" represents for the Hughes brothers, even as you shake your head at its excesses.

FROM HELL (Rated R for profanity, graphic violence, nudity, adult themes) Three stars (Good)

A lush, blood-drenched re-telling of the Jack the Ripper story, blending the style of the Hammer Films with a comic-book sensibility. Starring Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Robbie Coltrane, Ian Holm. Directed by the Hughes brothers. Twentieth Century-Fox. 137 minutes.

It's hard to know where to look first, because "From Hell" is so full of visual frissons. In its attempt to emulate the blood-drenched, occasionally fulsome Hammer Film releases of the 1950s and 1960s — the films that made horror icons of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee — "From Hell" turns comic-book pulp into a dazzling horror opus that ultimately gets carried away with itself.

Based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore, "From Hell" is a revisionist view of the Jack the Ripper story, set against the demimonde of Victorian London. Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) is a scrappy prostitute who, with a group of her streetwalker friends, live in fear of the McQueen gang, strong-arm criminals who have threatened the group of hookers unless they pay protection money.

So, when members of her clique are murdered, Mary assumes McQueen is responsible. But she is disabused of this notion by Scotland Yard detective named Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp).

As we learn early on, Abberline is a good detective because he has visions of the crimes through the eyes of the criminal. Call him the first profiler. To rid himself of these horrifying images (or, perhaps, to inspire more of them), he retreats to one of London's opium parlors on a regular basis.

The surgical swiftness and precision of the murders that produce an increasing pile of bodies — not to mention the sheer gut-wrenching brutality of them — convinces Abberline that the Ripper is a member of the medical profession, probably a surgeon. But each time he tries to pursue this thread of the case, he is blocked by his starchy superior, Sir Charles Warren (Ian Richardson), who fears that Abberline's inquiries will somehow embarrass the royal family — and with good reason.

The Hughes brothers — twins Albert and Allen — have bigger fish to fry than merely tracking a murderer. They envision a colossal conspiracy driven by a well-known secret society, aimed at nothing less than preserving the line of succession to the throne.

Working with cinematographer Peter Deming, the Hughes brothers achieve a dark, color-drenched palate whose shadows all but ooze across the screen. Well acquainted with comic-book conventions, they frame their images for greatest possible tension and impact, creating a heightened reality that makes the possibility of satanic involvement seem at least plausible.

Still, one wishes they'd chosen someone other than Depp for this role. Not that Depp isn't a brilliant young actor — it's just that he's played this role already several times, most prominently in Roman Polanski's "The Ninth Gate" and Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow." Once again embodying a cynical, agonized detective forced to rise above his own shortcomings, Depp practically disappears in this film.

And while Graham is a resourceful actress, her British accent is sketchy here. Even with red hair for this role, she seems too much like an apple-cheeked American beauty dressing up to play Eliza Dolittle.

Still, the directors have populated their film with the best of British character actors, including the always fascinating Ian Holm as a doctor who helps Abberline and the hefty Robbie Coltrane as Depp's long-suffering assistant.

"From Hell" is the classiest, most viscerally imaginative horror film I've seen in several years. That this ambitious film vision falls short of the mark shouldn't be held against it.

Rated R for profanity, graphic violence, nudity, adult themes.