While audiences may be attracted by the premise of an adorably dapper Johnny Depp versus bad old Jack the Ripper, what's really afoot here is the Hugheses' transposition of their familiar themes onto ostensibly foreign turf. From Hell has no convenience-store atrocity or exploding bank truck, yet every second of this project is informed by the directors' philosophy of "Wherever you go, there you are... in the 'hood." Although From Hell is set in Victorian England (and lensed, like most period movies these days, in the Czech Republic), there is no escaping the ghastliness of hapless proles being beaten down by the twisted ruling class.
Our heroine is Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), a curiously pure, scarlet-tressed streetwalker in London's seedy Whitechapel district, whose occupation seems to involve little more than walking the streets. It's a hard-knock life for Mary and her prossie sisters, as they haven't a tuppence among them, and the vicious Nichols gang -- led by a knife-happy bastard named Mcqueen (David Schofield) -- threatens to cut into their moneymakers. Things get only worse as the whores' friend Ann Crook (Joanna Page) is abruptly torn from the haunches of her husband, Albert Sickert (Mark Dexter), and their young daughter, Alice (Poppy Rogers), is left among the strumpets.
Noting that the peculiarly refined Albert must have mixed in with "summat tewwible," the girls are put on high alert, but their exhausting lifestyle -- quickies in alleyways, sleeping upright while bound together on benches -- makes them particularly vulnerable to a seductive beast roaming the night streets, with a covetable bunch of grapes in one paw and a precision blade in the other. Before long the uppity Martha Tabram (Samantha Spiro) meets with a nasty gutting, and the Hughes brothers paint the London sky a vicious crimson, filling our eyes with scary gargoyles and spooky shadows. The nightmare of Jack the Ripper has begun.
Enter Depp as Inspector Fred Abberline, a character based on the detective who actually tracked the killer in September 1888 but doubtless far sexier than either the real man or Michael Caine's portrayal thereof in the 1988 made-for-TV movie Jack the Ripper. Abberline -- who has lost his wife and child -- quaffs laudanum and absinthe like Kool-Aid, the better to enhance his psychic visions. Under the ministrations of his kindly supervisor, Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), Abberline returns to his old beat of Whitechapel to track and capture the Ripper.
Loosely adapted from the serialized graphic novel by comic guru Alan Moore and illustrator Eddie Campbell, the screenplay by Terry Hayes (Dead Calm) and Rafael Yglesias (Fearless) captures many of the book's juicy details (including the presence of "Elephant Man" John Merrick, played by Anthony Parker) without slavishly aping the scintillating opus. The revised narrative of the film doesn't exactly ooze with mystery, but it opts to hold out for a while, inspiring plenty of pathos and shocks as it plots its steady course.
From Hell is pretty grotesque at times, as the directors have married their love of bleeding bodies to the sticky visuals of Millennium Effects, which added all the pointless but realistic gore to Spielberg's vulgar tantrum, Saving Private Ryan. Despite their tomfoolery with gashed throats and butchered guts, however, the brothers opt out of categorization with cheap slasher movies by delivering extremely impressive production values, a horror show by way of Merchant-Ivory, with a superbly somber score by Trevor Jones, performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. If you leave before the stupid Marilyn Manson song blares over the end credits, the eerie authenticity will haunt you.
What's most impressive is the directors' refusal to blow their film into a high-concept mess. Unlike recent tripe such as Jeepers Creepers (gay porn masquerading as a monster movie), From Hell wants to dig not only into the guts of the innocent but into the complex entrails of history. After the success of this film, perhaps the Hughes brothers can turn their reactionary perspective -- and ours -- from the basic plight of the victimized underclass to the more intricate horrors of the well-heeled.