In case you haven't heard of Jack the Ripper, this perennially repeated attempt to tell his "story" shows up with fresh faces and a new line on solving the mystery in "From Hell". It would seem that, for a killer to go down in the annals of history and become almost an archetype for demonic monsters, he has only to "get away with it". The real "Jack" behind the legend died with his identity and motivations unknown, providing countless filmmakers the opportunity to "reveal" them. Should this be called serial horror thrillers?
This version is based somewhat tightly on the novel by English author Alan Moore which, in turn, was based on his comic book series illustrated by Eddie Campbell, presenting a clairvoyant if not omniscient addict of opium, laudanum (extract of morphine) and absinthe -- none other than inspector Frederick George Abberline (Johnny Depp). Did I leave out handsome and relentless? In any case, he's going to track down the prostitute-killing perp in a style that would do justice to the Baker Street Boys headed up by Sherlock Holmes himself.
Perhaps the first clue for the inspector once he's awakened from his opium dreams is that the killer is not merely stabbing the prostitutes, he's carving them up like a surgeon, removing an organ or two, and leaving clues as to his agenda. Chasing that agenda is going to bring Abberline at odds with a line of powerful men who are darlings of the queen herself. As he chases down his leads with loyal help of his sergeant Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), he comes up against his own boss, Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren (Ian Richardson) who seems increasingly to be throwing diversions in his path, like when he denies the inspector's request to consult a professional surgeon to better understand the skills and possible background of the killer.
Trudging on in his investigation and ignoring the boss's denial, Abberline consults the great surgeon, Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), who eloquently elaborates on the details of the killer's handiwork, which we see in increasing detail as the story and the killings go on. It's as though directors Albert and Allen Hughes ("Menace II Society", "Dead Presidents") felt they needed to prepare their audience for the eventual full graphic of the evisceration previously only described.
Abberline soon intuits that the "poor unfortunates" (the politically correct description for the prostitute victims) are all part of a group that hang together and who were guests at a wedding that some among the elite class believe could endanger the crown. As the plot thus thickens, Abberline becomes more reliant on the prettiest, the most stylish and the apparent sparkplug of the band, Mary Kelly (Heather Graham). (Mary Kelly was the last of the real Jack's prostitute victims). In short time, the good inspector seems to be falling for the "fallen" woman.
"From Hell" has all the technical elements for a modern depiction of those five killings that occurred during a 10-week span in the fall of 1888, styled as it is in the fog-shrouded streets of a cobble-stoned London, palatial estates, the crude dampness and dirt in the more callous part of society and a soft, dark and atmospheric gauze of light created by Director of Photography Peter Deming. Moreover, it contains an interesting suggestion of upper class prejudice as the rich and powerful promote the idea that the killer is a Jew, someone physically deformed or some other minority scoundrel. Interesting though this theme might be it's finally contradicted by the revelation of the real killer and the mystical powers that fuel his madness.
With all the production values and actor skills involved, as well as a script that's well developed by Terry Hayes ("Payback", "Fearless"), it is a little too surgical about its characters and themes to achieve emotional involvement. The film offers too many cliches and a Johnny Depp who can't quite cut through his character's studied dullness. The opium addiction comes off as a contrivance to afford him some gravitas and color but that would have been attained far better with humanistic shadings and a higher dynamic of energy. The horror of the mutilations are as ho-hum to the audience as they seem to be to him. But, at least he doesn't play buffoonish, as he did in "Sleepy Hollow".
Estimated cost: $35,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $33,000,000.