Judge Ryan Keefer really does think that there could be truth in advertising on this particular film's title.
Our review of From Hell: Director's Limited Edition, published May 14th, 2002, is also available.
More than the legend will survive.
On the surface, From Hell appeared to be an interesting take on an interesting subject, namely London's notorious Jack the Ripper. The film was released shortly after the September 11 attacks in America and the film was forgotten as quickly as it was mentioned, despite the presence of a credible star in the lead. Fox has made the decision to release this film as one of their catalog titles in a slow trickle of Blu-ray disc releases. How are we looking here?
Facts of the Case
Adapted from the graphic novel by Rafael Yglesias (Dark Water) and directed by Albert and Allen Hughes (Dead Presidents), the film is set in the late 19th Century of England, where Jack the Ripper is killing prostitutes in London. Talented Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland) is charged with trying to find the murderer, with the help of Sergeant Godley (Robbie Coltrane, The World is Not Enough). They negotiate through murders that appear to be unsolvable, and discovers a frightening underground conspiracy that might be preventing its solution. He manages to determine that a prostitute named Mary Kelly (Heather Graham, Boogie Nights) may hold the key to the Ripper's identity.
For years, there has been an ongoing curiousity with Jack the Ripper, probably in large part because the murderer was never brought to justice, so why not examine those from time to time, right? In the States, you only need to look to David Fincher's Zodiac for proof of this. But not knowing what the source material in the graphic novel is like, I'm not really sure what the allure was for THIS particular slant on the legend. The way the story is told, there are so many modern touches, like the intrusive 19th century London press, that one could telegraph the fact that people seemed a bit lost on the source material, so they decided to make a modern police procedural whilst at the same time making sure there was no modern technology used, but the requisite British accents are here in abundance.
Speaking of those accents, why would Depp, a guy who prides himself on trying to take on a wide variety of characters, think about taking on a role like this? The film came out two years after his work on Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, so if I'm the average moviegoer, isn't my first thought, "Wait a minute, Johnny Depp is playing ANOTHER 19th century investigator with a British accent? You sure this isn't a sequel to Sleepy Hollow?" As for Graham, since playing Rollergirl in Boogie Nights, this was presumably her way towards taking on more serious roles. Since then, she's been in Killing Me Softly, The Guru and The Oh in Ohio, so I'm guessing the career path she's chosen is working out well for her. Despite the performances of Ian Holm (Garden State) and Ian Richardson (Dark City), the fact remains that no one ever solved the crimes, and even with that knowledge, the film's characters lack any real charisma or charm, and the two hour running time makes them all the less appealing to boot.
Regardless of whether or not the film is any good, the 2.35:1 AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer shows off quite a bit. The color palette is varied with vivid reds and greens, along with the dark London nights, and they all look good. The DTS-HD track from Fox (their apparent default audio preference of choice for Blu-ray discs) brings the goods, with bass thumping from the beginning in the menus thanks to a beating heart. But when a scene demands it, the sound effects are crisp and clear, panning when needed. Overall technically, this disc is a lot better than expected.
From a supplements point of view, Fox has included everything on the current disc, and not the extras-laden second disc from the Limited Edition's release in 2001. There's a commentary track with the Hughes Brothers, Coltrane, Deming and Yglesias. I found the track to be fairly informative, with Yglesias and both Hughes's being the two main parties here. They discuss the decision to make this over Con Air, and the directing process is discussed as well. Yglesias talks about his script-what was different from the novel and what he wanted to do with this adaptation, while Deming provides more technically focused information on the shoot. Of all people, Coltrane provides the historical context of the Freemasons, but he also talks about working with Depp. Regardless of whether the movie stunk or not, the commentary track is pretty good. Aside from the trailer (and a rather uninteresting trivia track), the only other extra is a group of deleted scenes, twenty in all, running about twenty three minutes. The scenes provide a darker tone and focus a little more towards the "sexual hypocrisy" that Yglesias discusses in his commentary portions. There's also a slightly different ending for the film that's included here, but it's not too earth-shattering from the original.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
From a style point of view, there's no denying that From Hell is a pretty film and the Hughes brothers as filmmakers have some substance behind their craft. I hope one of these days they find a decent screenplay that will help them use those talents, as they haven't directed since. The problem that plagues them in this film is that they're using style to overcome deficiencies in the story, and they aren't fooling anyone.
From Hell certainly looks like an excellent film on Blu-ray, but the film is tedious, most of the cast is uninteresting, and the story is simply devoid of defining moments that make it worth two hours. On the plus side, Fox is putting great transfers onto Blu-ray, so this is encouraging. Let's start seeing better catalog titles in the future Fox!
No amount of absinthe and poison is going to make the court forget about this one anytime soon. Guilty as charged.
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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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