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From Hell: Special Edition

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Serial killers have become a common topic for the writers in Hollywood. In recent years there has never been a shortage of these deranged people to use as fodder for storylines. The grandfather of all serial killers is without a doubt Jack the Ripper. Striking in a ghetto of London in the year 1888 his brutal, ritualistic murder of prostitutes made all the headlines then and continues to fascinate people into the new millennium. This latest entry into the myth of the Ripper is a ‘cut’ above its processors. Johnny Depp plays Inspector Frederick George 'Fred' Abberline, a drug addicted detective that during his drug induced hallucinations finds clues to the crimes he is investigating. His stalwart assistant Sergeant Peter Godley (Robbie Coltraine) calls these visions the inspector’s intuitions and has come over time to depend upon them. Abberline is called in to investigate the horrible murders of a group of prostitutes. Not only is their throats cut but also organs are removed with surgical precision. This leads Abberline to believe that a man of education and position is responsible. This theory is met with a lot of resistance from Abberline’s superiors, especially Police Inspector Sir Charles Warren (Ian Richardson). In his quest for the truth Abberline finds assistance with two very different people. First there is Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), a beautiful, kindhearted prostitute that was close friends with all of the victims. The other source of help comes in the form of one of the royal physicians, Sir William Gull (Ian Holm). Unable to practice due to a recent stroke he devotes his time with teaching and ministering to the royal family. The story is roughly based on a series of graphic novels (a term used by adults for comic books) While the graphic novels presented the story more from the Ripper’s point of view, the film takes a step back. It is more the story of the Whitechapel district. Many similarities to modern ghettos are shown, the sex trade, drug use, so called respectable people holding the area in great distain yet fully taking advantage of the services the area offers. In the commentary screenwriter Rafael Yglesias makes it clear that his vision of the story is more concerned with the sexual hypocrisy of the times that affected every aspect of life in late 19th century. There are also a large number of misguiding clues presented in the story. Since we all know that Jack the Ripper was a serial killer and that so many theories have been presented in the last hundred and twenty odd years the plethora of red herrings helps to keep the audience guessing.

On the surface the casting of this film seems designed to attract the youthful demographic. You have Johhny Depp for the ladies and the beautiful Ms Graham for the gentlemen. Fortunately, the casting director found actors that can actually portray a role effectively. Depp has an uncanny command of his character. He plays Abberline as a man with a tragic past, his wife died and he turned to drugs. At first this was to numb his pain but he found that the drug induced visions actually helped with his job. Coltraine plays the Watson to Depp’s Holmes. He is the loyal sidekick; disgusted by the abuses his superior indulges in yet he admires the skill he brings to his profession. Coltraine is not the mindless sidekick so popular today but rather exhibits an intelligence of his own. Graham could have fallen into the Hollywood trap of making Mary simply the hooker with a heart of gold. Instead she brings to the character a strength borne out of necessity. As an intelligent young woman trapped in that time her options were extremely limited. She chose prostitution as the only avenue open to her to survive. Another actor that brings a lot to the plate here is Ian Holm. As usual he gives a stellar performance.

The brother team of Albert and Alan Huges helmed this film. Best known for modern urban films as ‘Dead Presidents’ and ‘Menace II Society’. Their expertise translates perfectly to the London slums of 1888. Even as technology advances the plight of the poor remains the same and life in the ghetto never really changes. The brothers split the job of director up into two portions. Albert takes on the technical aspects, dealing with the lighting and camera work while his brother Alan relates to the actors and advancing the storyline. Together they provide a story that holds your attention and keeps the audience entertained. There is a lot of influence of David Fincher in this film. The use of fast cuts, almost on the subliminal level. Rather than dwelling on the gruesome details of the murders only one or two frames are cut into the film. The images are burned into your mind as the images flash on the screen. There is also a lot of attention paid to the details of the scenery. In the featurettes experts on these killings make mention to the fact that the sets here are identical to the crime photos of the day.

The two-disc set is a real keeper. The first disc contains the film with Dolby 5.1 and DTS soundtracks as well as a commentary featuring the director, actors and crew. There is a good round robin discussion of the making of this film. The 2.35:1 anamorphic video is clear and completely free of artifacts. The second disc contains hours of informative and entertaining features. There are over 20 deleted scenes, an alternate ending, a documentary of the actual facts surrounding the killings and much, much more. A direct comparison to the graphic novel is presented; a look at the deadly drug absinthe and the excellent HBO making of featurette rounds out a presentation that will keep you watching long after you have viewed the film for the first time. This film could have degenerated into the slasher film so popular today. Instead you get a thoughtfully made adult thriller that is a worthy addition to any serious library. The Huges brothers have transcended the modern urban genre to show they have the talent and drive to go on to almost any type of film they wish to do.

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Posted 5/24/02

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