From Hell



US/UK/Czech Rep 2001 : Allen & Albert Hughes : 122 mins

Do we really need another Jack The Ripper picture – especially one that so religiously adheres to its predecessors’ long-established M.O.? From Hell, adapted from Alan Moore’s legendary comic-book, is a standard stew of Whitechapel horrors, complete with crazed surgeons, cackling whores and a plausible but not specially interesting freemasonry/royal-scandal angle.

It’ll be all too familiar to anyone who’s seen Bob Clark’s cheesily entertaining Murder By Decree from 1979 (which itself owed a major debt to Stephen Knight’s book The Final Solution.) While Decree contrasted the hyper-rational clue-gathering of Christopher Plummer’s Sherlock Holmes with the visionary ‘flashes’ of Donald Sutherland’s tormented psychic, From Hell combines both figures into the (real-life) Inspector Abeline.

With Johnny Depp in the role, Abeline becomes a kind of Jim Morrison of the Yard, retreating to a Limehouse opium den for his frequent ‘spells.’ These hallucinatory interludes should, in theory, allow the directors to let rip with all manner of eye-popping visuals. But the Hugheses don’t seem to have much flair or originality in any of their four collective eyes – not a good idea, then, to stir memories of David Lynch by including flashes of ‘Elephant Man’ John Merrick among their half-hearted phantasmagoria.

Prague, however, doubles surprisingly well for an East End loomed over by blood-red skies, while Depp and co-star Heather Graham (as a potential victim) acquit themselves OK on the accent front, boosted by a supporting cast of slumming Brit talent like Robbie Coltrane, Ian Holm and Katrin Cartlidge.

It’s just all a bit pointless – especially since some ham-fisted sound effects make the killer’s “distorted” voice all to easy to identify. Spotting the culprit too soon was the major flaw with Depp’s last venture into gothic territory, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow – but at least that film was obviously made by a director who’d seen and digested the original Hammer horrors. And of Hollywood had to spend so much money and effort updating a seventies ‘Jack’ picture, couldn’t they have turned to this tired sub-genre’s most fascinating and neglected entry, Peter Sasdy’s flawed, cheesily entertaining but psychologically ambitious Hands of the Ripper, from 1971?

15th March, 2002
(seen 25th January, Cineworld Milton Keynes)

by Neil Young
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