Our rating: 2 out of 5
reviewed by: Charity Bishop
Operating on the most popular theory concerning the Jack the Ripper cases but not necessarily the most probable, From Hell is a tantalizing if gruesome glimpse into one of London's most shocking and completely unsolved serial killing sprees. In the Whitechapel District of London, Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and her fellow "unfortunates" (a posh word for prostitutes) work the city streets. They're being bullied by a local thug who requires four pounds a week not to make them a little less pretty for their customers. With times hard, the girls have difficulty managing to put food on their plates, much less hand over such an exorbitant sum. Her best friend Ann Crook (Joanne Page) promises to get them the four pounds if Mary will look after her newborn.
That afternoon, while Ann is "entertaining" her only client, black-clad government officials break into the room and drag her off screaming. The baby is taken elsewhere and Mary despairs of ever seeing Ann again. She has worse problems to think about... her friends are being systematically murdered. Women of the night are appearing in alleyways and shady rooms, their throats slit and insides dismembered. Brought in to investigate these heinous crimes is Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), an opium addict attempting to recover from the death of his wife. Rather than random slaughter he believes these murders are ritual. One organ is taken from every victim. They are all part of the group that Mary Kelly frequents. Abberline enlarges his list of suspects to include educated men of science as well as insane local butchers. The head of Scotland Yard (Ian Richardson) wants him to keep this fairly low-key, particularly if there's a Jewish thread involved. Whitechapel is full of the Chosen Race and there could be mob slaughter if the terrified public begin to suspect wealthy locals.
In desperate need of medical knowledge, Abberline turns to Sir William Gull (Ian Holm) for assistance. Standing physician to the royal family but no longer surgeon due to age and declining health, Sir William cannot disallow that it may be a medical man of wealth. Each victim is lured to her gruesome death by the presence of grapes, a novelty only a few can afford. Mary is convinced the murders are in retribution from local thugs but Abberline is not convinced. He suspects a much larger scheme in which political power and cult practices may be involved. All of this complicates drastically as he realizes that Mary is the next intended victim... and he has begun to fall in love with her. The movie is captivating and well-produced, with eerie gas lit streets and dark alleyways. You never doubt for an instant that you're in Victorian England. There are many people on the streets at night in certain parts of the district, which lends believability to the plight of the unfortunates.
With a decent score and some underplayed but worthwhile acting from all involved, From Hell promises a chilling ride and delivers. However, the plot twists are foreseen. I guessed at two major shock factors prior to their unfolding and therefore wasn't as astounded as I should have been. Having seen this theory explored in Murder by Decree, I was also less enraptured with the ending revelation than I would have if they'd gone for something completely unoriginal and unexplored. (To be fair, this is the most popular theory surrounding the Ripper killings, so it carries the most cinematic weight.) There are some unbelievable gaps in logic (such as why Mary Kelly never has any clients) but for the most part it's very realistic. With films of this nature it's natural there would be a lot of violence and gore. I was surprised they chose to imply rather than show in most instances, although there are still several gut-wrenching scenes that will make your stomach churn. In one of them a woman's neck is graphically sliced open. After the most maniacal murder, the entire room is spattered in blood. The Ripper talks about the human heart to an invisible audience as he removes it from the girl's body (cutting unseen, but with sound effects) and then dumps it into a teapot over the fire. (We see the heart several times in his hand.) Only very brief glimpses are given of the victims, but implications are horrible. We watch from a distance as he does his bloody work, then leaves the body laying in the street for constables to find.
There are numerous instances of implied violence -- throat cuttings, strangling, and so forth, along with two medical procedures in which a sharp barbed object penetrates the brain in order to create passiveness in violent mental patients. (The victims are turned into vegetables, incapable of correct thought.) A carriage loses a wheel and turns over, crushing and dragging the man hanging out its window. Several times we observe prostitutes in their trade. There are various sexual innuendoes and two scenes of explicit sexual content, one with nudity and movement, the other with coarse dialogue and a rattling fence. Two naked women are seen in an opium den, laying on a table. One of the unfortunates has lesbian leanings and twice kisses other women. (The first reacts violently, the second is uncomfortable in front of observers.) Conversation revolves around the Ripper removing "female organs." Language is also heavy, with about a dozen f-words, one harsh abuse of deity, and many repeat uses of "bloody."
Abberline is a drug addict and we see him smoking opium several times, as well
as mixing an illegal and highly dangerous narcotic. While in this drug-induced
state he has visions, many of them eerie and grotesque. He claims to be able to
"see" crimes before or as they're happening. While this element isn't
overwhelming to the plot, it does create much of the supporting tension. There's
something very disturbing about the movie. Maybe it's the nature of the
murders... systematical, justified, and grotesque. It might be the demonic gleam
in the Ripper's eyes when overcome with madness. Maybe its the narcotic evil of
the force behind such terrible actions. Whatever it was, From Hell is not
to be entered into lightly.