As John J. Puccio pointed out in his review of the DVD, this film by Albert and Allen Hughes doesn't provide the scares that you'd expect. It's largely a brooding, heavily atmospheric period piece in which the inspector who tries to track down Jack the Ripper is almost as out-of-it as the criminal.
Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp) is prone to relax in baths with a fully-stocked bar at arm's length, or to incorporate passed-out sessions in an opium den into his research. He's a clairvoyant, you see, and the opium helps prompt the visions of the murders he's trying to solve just as much as the home cocktails he makes for himself out of Absinthe and laudanum. That twist is a stroke of genius, because Abberline's visions contribute to the atmosphere and also the blurry ambiguity of the mystery at hand.
Not much is factually known about Jack the Ripper, a serial killer who cut and removed organs from mostly prostitutes in the Whitechapel district of London in late 1888. No clear description was ever formed from testimiony by those who claim to have seen him, and he was never caught. Adding to the confusion, is that police received hundreds of letters by people claiming to be the killer--including one that was dubbed the "From Hell" letter, which was accompanied by a section of human kidney, the rest of which the writer claimed he had fried and eaten. But there was never enough evidence to point to anyone, and the case was closed, forever leaving the identity of Jack the Ripper to historians, crime novelists, and conspiracy theorists.
This script, based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, goes off in the direction of conspiracy, offering an interesting take on the case that involves none other than Queen Victoria herself. "From Hell" weaves three narratives together as we follow the case of the five murdered prostitutes who were confirmed victims of the serial killer, all reflecting the same modus operandi. One thread follows the prostitutes (Heather Graham, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge, Annabelle Apsion), who, for the purpose of this script, are all friends who have a hard time on London's mean streets. Another follows Inspector Abberline and his rotund Sgt. Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane, a.k.a. Hagrid, who is reminiscent of John Goodman this outing) as they investigate. And a third thread follows the shadowy trail of the killer and those involved in the killer's wider circle, with as much cloak-and-dowager secrecy as required to keep readers from concluding too much too early in the film.
But, of course, we have our suspicions. Netley (Jason Flemyng), the coachman for a strange man who turns out to be the carver, is only the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of suspicious people--some of them doctors, some of them pimps, and some of them lords, including Sir William Gull (Ian Holm).
All of the performances are strong, and the backgrounds are so wonderful that you realize they're fake but appreciate them all the same. To their credit, the Hughes brothers didn't treat this like another slasher film, minimizing gore rather than wallowing in it.
So what's wrong "From Hell"? A lot of small things, really. Choosing to make the five prostitutes friends makes the film seem as vaguely familiar as those teen slasher pics that take us down the familiar road of attrition. Graham seems too virginal to be playing a prostitute, and for a poor person living on the streets in Victorian England, she's looking awfully rosy-cheeked and freshly scrubbed in every scene. Having her attracted to the inspector and him a widower who's ready for romance just seems too easy-cheesy, and strikes the wrong note for a plot counterpoint. Likewise, bringing in a prostitute from France who's a lesbian just seems a blatant but half-hearted attempt to throw in a little sexual titillation from another angle. And speaking of angles, as gorgeous as those backgrounds are, there are frames where you are jarred out of the illusion of the film's reality because of overly artsy shots from the Hughes brothers.
None of the negatives add up to enough to indict the filmmakers, but they do keep "From Hell" in the category of a decent but not great movie.
From John's description, "From Hell" looked good in standard definition, but it looks even better in High Definition. Though it's transferred at a fairly low bit-rate (19mbps) using AVC technology, the 1080p picture (2.35:1 widescreen) looks great. One suspects that a higher bit-rate might have made the foggy scenes look too pristine, more unreal than surreal. The palette is drab, reflecting Victorian England mostly at night, but the black levels are strong enough to pull out all sorts of shadows and variations, even in darkness. No complaints here.
The featured audio is a DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless audio, which Fox seems to be gravitating toward as of late. It's clear, it's pure, and it's resonant, with sounds filling the room rather than seeming to have been broadcast from specific sources. Alternate soundtracks are Spanish or French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English (CC) or Spanish.
This 50-gig disc has some but not all of the features from the two-disc special edition. The commentary by the Hughes brothers, screenwriter Rafael Yglesias, cinematographer Peter Deming and Robbie Coltrane is here (and it's pretty good), and so is the trailer and 20+ deleted scenes (including an alternate ending that's even cheesier) with optional commentary. Missing are ALL of the making-of features, while exclusive to the Blu-ray disc is a pop-up trivia track that's interesting to watch the same time as the commentary.
"From Hell" works mostly on the level of an atmospheric drama. As a mystery, and as a thriller, it's not as successful. But it has Johnny Depp, who changes himself so much each film to become his character that he's always fun to watch. For that reason alone, this disc is worth adding to your collections.