Our review of From Hell (Blu-Ray), published November 1st, 2007, is also available.
"One day men will look back and say that I gave birth to the twentieth century."—Jack the Ripper
All it takes is some time and patience for a horrific historical event to become fodder for Hollywood's cannon. Right now, a studio wouldn't dream of making a fictitious movie based on September 11th or any other recent worldwide tragedy. However, give them about a hundred years or so and you might get something like the Hughes brothers' From Hell, a retelling of the London's infamous Jack the Ripper legend. Upon its initial theatrical release the film was met with only lukewarm critical response and a somewhat cool box office take. Based upon the graphic novel of the same name, From Hell stars the ever-versatile Johnny Deep (What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, Sleepy Hollow), Heather Graham (Boogie Nights, Bowfinger), and Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Goldeneye), and was directed by Allen and Albert Hughes (Dead Presidents). From Hell creeps from the depths of the earth onto a two-disc set care of Fox Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
The legend lives again in From Hell, the story of Jack the Ripper and his reign of terror on the streets of London! When a string of murders sweeps England's seedy districts, the absinthe drinking, opium smoking, vision-seeing detective Abberline (Depp) is called in to help solve that case. It seems that the Ripper has been stalking women of the night, including Mary Kelly (Graham) and her close-knit band of friends…but why? As each girl is viciously killed one by one, Abberline and his semi-right hand man Peter Godley (Coltrane) search out every dark corner to stop Jack's next bloodthirsty crime. As they begin to get closer and closer to the truth, viewers will finally be able to see who the real Jack the Ripper was and why he went about his path of dastardly destruction!
From Hell is a movie that plays much better the second time around. I realized about halfway through that I was enjoying the story, the locations, and the characters much more than I did when I caught it months ago in the theater. This is a dark and twisted tale about one of history's most notorious killers, with a twist. Of course, as most of you know the identity of the real Jack the Ripper was never discovered. While theories abound, the simple fact is that we will probably never know who the real Ripper was (and by this point, it's fairly moot anyhow). Like JFK and the O.J. Simpson case, the world needs its share of secrets and mysteries. What fun is life if we don't have some lingering questions hanging in the air? From Hell takes full advantage of this by piecing together the facts of the Ripper case while simultaneously mixing it with fiction. Personally, I love that idea. I always think it's kind of neat to take some past historical event and tweak it into a fictitious story. In a way, movies like Ed Wood and Dick did the same thing—reality churned with fantasy.
From Hell is the movie that Tim Burton never made. The dark imagery and lingering evil reminded me of Burton's bleak horror movie Sleepy Hollow (which also starred Depp as the protagonist). From Hell is a movie that may confuse many—those looking for straight horror, drama, or suspense will be disappointed. While the movie contains all of these elements, it won't be pigeon-holed into one specific genre. The Hughes brothers have made a sprawling, sinister opus that penetrates into the heart of darkness. While it doesn't succeed on all levels, the film gets more right than wrong, which is a good step in the right direction. For one thing, we finally get to see who Jack the Ripper really was…well, at least in the realm of fiction.
The cast, led by Johnny Depp, is nearly perfect for the material. Like Sean Penn, Depp is one of the best actors of his generation—he's not content to stay stagnant in one role or genre. The guy's done everything from slasher horror (A Nightmare On Elm Street) to fluffy romance (Don Juan DeMarco) to camp comedy (Ed Wood) to gritty drama (Donnie Brasco). Depp's performance in From Hell is, as usual, pitch perfect. He's a man tormented by his own demons, while simultaneously attempting to catch one loose on the streets of London. His partner, played by the vastly underrated Robbie Coltrane, shines with his rotund face and humorous delivery of even the most mundane of dialogue. The only cast member who seems out of place is Heather Graham as the porcelain-faced prostitute Mary Kelly (one of the Ripper's real life victims). It's obvious that some of the studio execs got their fingers in this cinematic pie as Graham's "hooker with a heart of gold" character is the only woman with a white set of choppers and snowy white skin. In fact, every other prostitute in this film appears to be carrying at least three different venereal diseases except for Graham. And yes, that whooshing noise you just heard was the sound of reality being tossed out the window.
Minute quibbles aside, From Hell is a stylish movie that deserves to be seen on DVD if you haven't seen it before. For those of you who caught it in the theaters and felt ambivalence, I urge you to watch it again—it's rare that a movie snags me the second time around, but From Hell did just that. And just to throw in my two cents, I still think the Ripper was really the Loch Ness Monster (to understand that joke, be sure to rent the wacky Amazon Women on the Moon). [Editor's Note: And that, dear readers, is what sets Judge Naugle apart: he can compare any film to a cheesy B-flick.]
From Hell is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. For as good as this image looks (and it looks great), the whole thing is covered in drab darkness and dirty blacks. Since the film takes place mostly at night in the pitch black corners of London's streets, the image often appears overly dark and bland. However, this is the way it's supposed to look, and as such sports nary a hint of edge enhancement, grain, or dirt. This is an excellent looking transfer to a very grungy looking film.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround as well as DTS 5.1, both in English. Either of these soundtracks should give your home theater system a thorough workout. There are many great moments of surround sound in this film (especially with the front speakers), and the dialogue, effects, and music all come through clear as a bell. Also available on this disc are French and Spanish soundtracks in Dolby Surround, as well as English subtitles.
The good news is that fans of this film will be busting at the seams to get their hands on this very well produced "Director's Limited Edition" two-disc set. When Fox wants to do right by DVD, they really do right, as evidenced by this excellent set. Starting off disc one is a commentary track by Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes, screenwriter Rafael Yglesias, cinematographer Peter Deming, and actor Robbie Coltrane. Each of the participant's comments have been recorded separately and put together as one whole, cohesive track. From the outset, the Hughes brothers comment that they're not huge fans of commentaries, so the bulk of this track is left up to the rest of the participants. Personally, I found Coltrane to be the funniest and most interesting talker. Taken as a whole, this is a nice way to learn some background about the film. Also included on disc one are 20 deleted scenes, as well as an alternate ending to the film. There's some genuinely good stuff to be found here, including an extended death scene of Dark Annie and an alternate ending that, while lush and different, wouldn't have served the film as well as the one they ended up using.
Flip over to disc two and you'll find the rest of the set's extra features, starting with some featurettes on the making of the film. First up is a very in-depth featurette titled "Jack the Ripper: Six Degrees of Separation," which takes a probing eye to the real-life Jack the Ripper case. This piece doesn't have a lot to do with the film, instead focusing on the real Ripper case and his victims, the theories behind the killer, and other aspects of the mystery. As the program progresses a small magnifying glass icon pops up now and then allowing the viewer to move onto an alternate section that's filled with older documentary footage on the Ripper case. All in all this is a pretty cool look at the real Ripper, though be forewarned that there is some graphic imagery of a few of the Ripper's victims. Next up is a production design featurette hosted by production designer Martin Childs that's your basic look at what it took to recreate the sets from 19th century London. Following suit is the Hughes brothers in "Tour of the Murder Sites," a historical showcase of London by the brothers pointing out exactly where the Ripper's murders took place. Personally, I found this to be the best supplement on this disc. "A View From Hell" is a short HBO feature hosted by Heather Graham and doesn't add a lot to one's knowledge of the film. This is typical promo material right down to the shoddy clips from the movie. "Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder" is a nostalgic look back on the illegal beverage (well, illegal here in the U.S. at least…). Interviewed in this section are two nobodies who just seem to really like talking about drinking Absinthe and what effects it has on their gray matter.
Finally, there is a fairly neat look at the graphic novel from which From Hell was derived (including a peek at some of the images and themes not seen in the film), as well as theatrical trailers for the movies From Hell and the Richard Gere suspense thriller Unfaithful.
From Hell is well wroth your time if you're in the mood for something original and different. This is the first film I've seen by the Hughes brothers, and so far I like what I'm seeing. Fox's work on this title is very good—from excellent video and audio presentations to a morgue's worth of special features, From Hell will make a nice addition to any DVD fan's collection.
From Hell is found…well, it's found dead on the street! But if it were still alive, it would be found innocent!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Directors/Producers Albert and Allen Hughes, Writer Rafael Yglesias, Cinematographer Peter Deming, and Actor Robbie Coltrane
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