The opening of From Hell finds Johnny Depp doing what he does best: lying semi-catatonic while smoking opium through a pipe. The initial reaction might be alarm that this is a colonial version of Blow, or perhaps a rehash of Sleepy Hollow, both recent Depp films which bear similarities to the Hughes Brothers’ take on Jack the Ripper.
But viewers can breathe easy. Although Depp’s character is a drug addict, as in Blow, and although he plays an ostracized 19th-century London investigator, as in Sleepy Hollow, From Hell is neither a hackneyed rise-and-fall saga nor a cartoonish treatment of a living legend. It is, however, an intelligent and stylish look at the gothic underworld of sin in turn-of-the-century London.
The story involves the baffling and grisly murders of several prostitutes, which Inspector Frederick Abberline (Depp) is called upon to investigate. Instead of using scientific methods as in Sleepy Hollow, Depp relies on drug-induced visions to draw conclusions on the case. Eventually his findings lead him to prostitute Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), whom he believes will be the next victim.
Based on the comic book series by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, the film is not an exploration of good and evil. The so-called protagonists and antagonists are all sinners to differing degrees, whether the transgressions involve infidelity, murder, addiction or obsession. Depp needs his drugs to stay afloat in the investigation, Graham needs to sell herself to survive, and maybe, in some sick way, Jack the Ripper needs to kill to fulfill himself. And like any moral tale, each character must suffer the consequences of his deeds.
Most striking in From Hell are its unforgiving depictions of explicit gore and sex, striking because they just don’t seem right in a movie taking place in 1800s England. This is of course the exact reaction the Hughes Brothers are going for, drawing on their experience bringing modern inner-city problems to the screen (Menace II Society) and successfully applying it to the equivalent 100 years ago. Viewers have been trained by countless Merchant Ivory and Edith Wharton adaptations that the 19th century was a time of etiquette, cleanliness, and order; From Hell tears those perceptions apart. Representative of the mentality at the time, Commissioner Warren (Ian Richardson) tells Depp, “Well, one thing’s for certain: an Englishman didn’t do it.” Especially shocking are the depictions of the opium den and Depp’s psychedelic visions of violence; one also doesn’t recall too many historical films dealing with lesbian prostitutes.
But the Hughes Brothers bring more to the film than violence and gore. Jack the Ripper’s famous quote, “One day, men will look back and say that I gave birth to the 20th century,” is displayed at the beginning and provides the basis for their approach to the material. From Hell is most definitely a look from the 20th century back to its beginnings, and the directors’ style lends itself accordingly.
At one of the early crime scenes, the action goes into fast-forward from night into day, with passersby zooming in every direction; as the Ripper makes his escape, he fades into nothingness instead of ducking into a dark corner. Abberline’s hallucinations also have the quality of similar scenes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, another film in which Depp explores the wonders of drugs. In short, this could be a modern-day hunt for a serial killer in the vein of Seven or The Silence of the Lambs, but it is neither derivative nor predictable.
Depp gives what he can to a character that is barely saved from clich