A favorite film bogeyman for decades, Jack the Ripper returns in an engrossing thriller that adds a persuasive theory about his identity to the expected slayings and dismemberments. Marked by a compelling performance by Johnny Depp and a production several notches above genre standards, From Hell is poised to draw in a lot more than niche horror fans.
London's Whitechapel district in 1888 is a fetid swamp of doss houses, pubs and dead-end alleys. Prostitutes like Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) must fight brutal extortionists who want a cut of their take. A visit from former streetwalker Ann Crook (Joanna Page), now married to a wealthy aristocrat, sets off a string of vicious murders among Mary's friends.
Police inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp) has been addicted to opium and laudanum since the death of his wife in childbirth. As the corpses pile up, he tries to make sense of the apparently random violence. Clues indicate that the killer is wellborn, leading Abberline to question Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), physician to the Royal Family.
Gull agrees that the killer shows a remarkable knowledge of anatomy, but Abberline's superior, Sir Charles Warren (Ian Richardson), seems curiously reluctant to allow the case to proceed. Frustrated, Abberline turns to the suspicious Mary for help. Together, they track down Ann Crook, missing since the first murder. Abberline uncovers links to the Special Branch, a secret police unit, and the Freemasons, a quasi-religious sect. But he is powerless to prevent further killings--even when the evidence points to Mary as the next victim.
Set almost entirely within the slums of Whitechapel, From Hell revels in dank boarding houses, smoke-filled saloons, and fearsome hansom cabs that career through narrow streets. The filmmakers have concocted a sinister world in which grapes are considered luxuries, where the police are at the service of a largely corrupt upper class, and where lobotomies are delivered without anesthesia. The adroit script combines several genres, from horror to film noir to period spectacle, while remaining true to their traditions. As a mystery, it offers a half-dozen suspects, arcane clues, and murky conspiracy theories involving clandestine sects. As a romance, it gives us doomed lovers who are betrayed at every turn. The horror elements are especially satisfying. The slashing, jarring violence feels accurate and chilling, but directors Allen and Albert Hughes use gore judiciously and resist cheap shocks.
Depp, sporting a working-class British accent, has finally found an anti-hero role that works. Given his character's past, and the scope of the conspiracy he faces, it's no wonder he is prone to paranoia and despair. The largely British supporting cast is a delight, especially the Ians Holm and Richardson, whose work evokes the best of Hammer Films. Literate and entertaining, From Hell should help erase the memory of the more dismal slasher movies of the past.