Jack the Ripper has many followers these days. Not fans, of course, but history-minded observers who view his exploits as a vantage point on the dark side of England's strait-laced Victorian era - or as a cautionary lesson in the regrettable human capacity for evil.
"Ripperologists" like these have awaited the première of "From Hell" with great interest - partly because of its legendary villain, and partly because it's based on a respected "graphic novel" of the same title. This comic-book-style opus was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by artist Eddie Campbell in black-and-white images that are strange and spooky enough to make every page-turn an eerie adventure.
Surprisingly, the film version of "From Hell" was directed by the Hughes brothers, a technically gifted team who have previously specialized in stories of urban African-American life such as "Dead Presidents" and "Menace II Society." Their unexpected excursion into Victorian England is apparently meant to boost their reputation for versatility, although they've also suggested that "From Hell" is basically another "ghetto story" in the vein of their previous pictures.
Condensing the novel's epic scope into a two-hour-plus horror yarn, they begin the action with a Hollywood-style plunge into the streets of 19th-century London, complete with boisterous beggars, sleazy slum-dwellers, and bedraggled prostitutes of the sort Jack the Ripper stalked. The fact that the movie's main prostitute is played by glamorous Heather Graham is one sign that "From Hell" cares more about wide-screen spectacle than the shadowy meditations that Moore and Campbell explore in their book.
The hero is Johnny Depp (see interview, page 18) as police inspector Fred Abberline, an eccentric chap given to opium dreams and occasional psychic visions that help him solve inscrutable crimes. Perplexed by the enigmatic clues and possibly supernatural overtones of the Ripper case, he starts an obsessive investigation that smokes out enough complications to give Sherlock Holmes nightmares. These include mysterious messages from the killer, a scandal in the royal family, a Masonic conspiracy, and an ominous overlap among 19th-century dreams of progress, humanity's capacity for self-delusion, and Europe's dawning awareness of the dangers modernity carries in its grasp.
Devotees of horror movies will find "From Hell" a lively entertainment, if they can handle its taste for explicit gore. Many scenes recall the colorful classics made by England's feisty Hammer studio ("The Curse of Frankenstein," "The Horror of Dracula") decades ago - short on subtlety but long on energetically evoked chills.
What's missing is the philosophical resonance of the graphic novel - the sense that myth and history, space and time, good and evil, life and death themselves are intertwined elements of a single vast spiral that humans can dimly glimpse but never fully fathom. For all their skills, that's something the Hughes brothers aren't prepared to tackle.
Rated R; contains explicit violence, sex, and drug use.