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Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2002
The original cloak and dagger
By KAORI SHOJI
There's an argument that cinema has excessively glamorized the serial killer as someone cool, elegant -- an artist in his own right. And as one charismatic (for lack of a better word) murderer after another makes his screen debut, we in the audience become more demanding and nitpicky. Who, for example, would recoil at the sight of bloody sheets and quotes from the Old Testament writ on the wall in red anymore? And, after Hanninal Lecter, who would gasp at a killer having his victim for dinner? Surprise us, we say. Give us something new.
The latest response to our demands is "From Hell," a serial-killer movie that focuses on the granddaddy of serial killers, the original founder of the whole evil inheritance. The time is 1888, the city is London and the granddaddy is Jack the Ripper, who, as the movie reveals, was the first of his kind to make tabloid headlines and ascend the ladder to serial-killer celebritydom. Directed by the Hughes brothers -- Allen and Albert -- "From Hell" is an extravagantly shot, lovingly executed work (excuse the double-entendre), a compelling combination of Victorian horror with a modern edge.
Certainly this is a work that defies the "period piece" category. The Hughes brothers are famed for their debut, "Menace II Society" (1993), which they made when they were 20, and urban violence is their forte. For their latest film, they teamed up with cinematographer Peter Deming ("Mulholland Drive") for the additional scare factor. But more than terror, "From Hell" is a lesson in stylized gore. Two hours of mayhem and blood alternating with the decadence and oh-so-cool, late-Victorian aesthetics.
"From Hell" is based on the "graphic novel" by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, and thus retains much of the comic book sensationalism that defined their work. Lines like "Someday, men will look back and say that I gave birth to the 20th century," spoken by Jack himself; his letters, signed "From hell"; the excessive use of big black capes and walking sticks -- all these could be pulpy tripe, but the Hughes brothers have given them an eerie and dignified aura. Contributing greatly to the ambience is the cast, consisting of Johnny Depp, Robbie Coltrane, Ian Holm and Terence Harvey. Depp -- who sports a half-cockney, half-gentry accent and demonstrates his dexterity at fitting himself into a role, any role -- is especially impressive.
Acting as his loyal comrade is Coltrane, a big, burly Englishman who wears tweeds as though he was born in them. And for a specimen of the snide upper-crust Brit, don't take your eyes off Harvey, whose upper lip is apparently so stiff he has lost the power to move it at all.
London in 1888 was a miserable place to be for those with little income. Life was especially tough for the "unfortunates," i.e., whores who roamed the streets plying their trade and had no choice but to starve when business was bad. To top it off, Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and her band of friends had to pay off the local thugs for street protection and still walk in terror of "Jack the Ripper," a mysterious killer with a penchant for prostitutes.
Scotland Yard's Fred Abberline (Depp) is called on the case, but he's often in no shape to work on it. Since his wife died during childbirth a few years ago, Abberline has fallen to the seduction of opium and is apt to be "chasing the dragon" when the murders happen. For Abberline's deputy officer, Peter Godley (Coltrane), a search in the opium dens is part of the day's work. Also to sober up his boss and cart him off to the murder scenes, always so brutal that constables and police surgeons vomit on the pavement.
But Godley knows Abberline's special gift: He can foresee events, and these visions occur with the aid of opium. This time, however, Jack the Ripper is always one step ahead, and though he leaves small clues behind (grape stems, coins arranged in a five-pointed star), Abberline has yet to glimpse the actual face of the killer who first slashes his victims' throats, then disembowels them. This is done with such speed and skill that Abberline is sure a doctor is involved. He goes to Royal Surgeon Sir William Gull (Holm) for advice and receives instructive information on the possible identity of Jack.
In the meantime, the higher powers disapprove of Abberline's prying into the aristocracy. Special Branch bigwig Ben Kidney (Harvey) makes moves against Abberline, but by this time he has fallen in love with Mary Kelly and intent on solving the case.
While Abberline's opium-induced visions are digitized, his pipes and other prop details (surgeon's tools, reading glasses, corsets) look straight out of the British Museum, enhancing the Old World texture that sets this work apart from other serial-killer stories. Given that serial killers are now a genre -- lucrative for the box office and a magnet for talents like the Hughes brothers -- it would seem Jack the Ripper made a miscalculation: His influence extends beyond the 20th century right into the 21st.