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Cleolinda: ***1/2

Trailers (may vary by theater): Out Cold, Lord of the Rings (latest), Spy Game, Behind Enemy Lines, Black Knight.

As I write this, I’ve only now walked in the door from a 9:30 showing, filled with the phantasmagoria of this film—not that this is an unqualified rave. The gore—rather, the sheer “freakiness,” as The Lovely Emily and I term it—will be hard for a lot of people to stomach. Granted, the Hughes brothers assault you with peripheral slivers of  horror—Was that a knife? Was that her throat? Was that the
Elephant Man??—until they have you reeling from a barrage of things only half-seen. Then they’ll hit you full-fisted, much later, with carnage you’ve convinced yourself they wouldn’t show.

Gore is one thing. But this is also a film that takes you into the mind of both an opium-addicted detective (with psychic visions, no less!) and a psychotic killer, and you see some things that ain’t so pretty there. (The title of both the film and the graphic novel it was based on comes from the “return address,” as it were, of one of the Ripper’s taunting letters.) And that’s another one of the things I appreciated about From Hell: our killer, once we meet him, is really, truly psychotic. The Ripper’s final visions at once make sense in terms of his purposes, his needs and desires, and yet have the wild tilt-a-whirl logic of the insane. Because he is, after all, crazy. I will definitely give From Hell its props: the Hughes’ Ripper is not just another overly intellectual, unrealistically elaborate, cookie-cutter movie killer, but rather a man—both a gentle man and a gentleman—whose mind is sliding into the abyss.

As far as the actors themselves go, the acting is uniformly good. Heather Graham shocked us all with a solid guttersnipe Irish accent, not to mention total removal of her usual perkiness, replacing it with a certain desperate, take-charge determination to survive. Johnny Depp, of course, is wonderful, but it’s worth noting that his Inspector Abberline seems, on the surface, as if it could be a Xerox of his Sleepy Hollow character. Yet he plays the exact opposite of his delightfully wussy Ichabod: lower-class, earthy, forceful. Compared to many of his performances, his Abberline is subtle and underplayed, which meshes well with the fever pitch of the visuals.

I can’t really tell you much about the plot, because I’m not sure I can give away enough of it and still make any sense. The fact is, the Ripper killings were never solved. Having read up extensively on the Ripper several years ago,  I went into this movie knowing way more than the average moviegoer (“Dude, if her last name is Eddowes, then she is screwed!”). I bring this up to make two points: I personally do not subscribe to the same theory as the film does, and I liked it anyway. However, the film manages to use an astonishing amount of verifiable fact—names, locations, modus operandi—and yet mixes in a number of fictional elements (the laudanum, the grapes…the Johnny Depp character in his entirety). Which wouldn’t be a problem, only that several real people are implicated in a conspiracy worthy of the X-Files—say, the entire royal family. And while this is a definite group of theories I’ve read, I shudder to think that people might  walk away from this movie thinking that this scenario is absolute truth, rather than one possibility in dozens.

My second point is this: Damn, the conspiracy element is hard to follow. So many of the actors look alike that half the time we couldn’t figure out who was who, and this seems to have been done on purpose to confuse the viewer as to who was who and doing what. At the end of the day, though—if the Ripper fanatic in the group can’t figure out what’s going on, you’ve got a problem.

But these are quibbles, really. What I liked best about the movie—aside from the freakish, hallucinatory verve of its style—was the directors’ ability to see beyond the Ripper as a slasher cipher, a Freddy Krueger for the nineteenth century. Instead, From Hell becomes an indictment of a society all too willing to blame the crimes on Jews or “foreigners,” because “a gentleman couldn’t have done it”—a society so obsessed with propriety that it hides, almost by necessity, almost by definition, debauchery and misdeed behind every door. There’s a good sense of darker corners of the Victorian era that we often forget. The Hughes brothers, Allen and Albert, who are best known for Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, have even called this a “ghetto” film. And it is, in the best possible sense—a fresh perspective on a character and a time that may really have “given birth to the twentieth century.”

The Critical Combo Platter
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