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The story of Jack the Ripper has fascinated and horrified the public since 1888, when he stalked the streets of London murdering prostitutes in a particularly grisly manner. 20th Century Fox’s film From Hell, directed by the Hughes brothers, takes a stylish and compelling look at what might have been the truth behind this mystery that was, in real life, never solved.

From Hell
From the opening scenes, From Hell gets high marks for both originality and visual creativity. The ambiance of the film is moody, dark, and threatening, with brilliant scarlet sunsets, yellow street lamps, darkly glistening wet cobbled streets filled with huddled, hurrying workers and desperate “unfortunates” plying their trade of prostitution on every streetcorner in the Whitechapel district of London. The visual elements fit together to create a stylish and dramatic vision of London in the late 19th century in all its grime and squalor as well as its brilliance in the homes of the rich and powerful.

As we learn in the special features included on the DVD, From Hell had its origins in a graphic novel, which makes the intense visual focus of the film unsurprising. In addition to a lavish hand with colors and lighting, and a strong attention to detail in costume and setting, the cinematography of From Hell is worth remarking on. Imaginative use of such techniques as time-lapse photography, surrealistic dream-sequences, and one-shot scenes brings an artistic vitality to the film.

For the plot of the film, From Hell draws on an extensive body of information and surmise about the real case of Jack the Ripper; since the case was never solved, it remains perfect fodder for speculations about “what really happened.” From Hell pays extremely close attention to the genuine facts of the case, and weaves its plot around those details. On the one hand, this makes for an interesting development of the plot; however, the effectiveness of the plot is marred somewhat by the handling of the many secondary characters. The main figures are easy to keep track of: Detective Abberline (Johnny Depp), Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and her fellow prostitutes, the detective’s sergeant (Robbie Coltrane), and a respected surgeon (Ian Holm). But other characters tend to blur together and it’s hard to match names with faces and roles in the film, making it difficult to get involved with the quest to identify Jack the Ripper.

The character of Detective Abberline is the perfect figure to tie the various parts of the film together thematically: he walks the borderline between the streets and high society as he works to solve crimes and prevent them; he’s a man of both worlds but belonging to neither. The character of Abberline is effective plotwise as well, because he’s trying to unravel the plot while simultaneously being watched and, possibly, manipulated by his superiors. Depp carries out the role quite well, showing Abberline to be a man who is brilliant at his job but at the same time drawn into danger by his addiction to “chasing the dragon”: i.e. smoking opium.

The same can’t be said of Heather Graham, however: she remains a weak link in the film. Graham never quite fits into the role of the prostitute; she is too unspoiled and pretty, and her accent is too patently fake, and every scene that she’s in ends up with a slightly false note because of this. However, this wouldn’t have been as influential on the film if it weren’t for the Hollywoodian necessity for a love story to be included in the plot. So a love interest between her and Depp is shoehorned into the story, where it falls completely flat. If at least the forced love scenes had been left on the cutting room floor, then From Hell could have risen to be worthy of an 8 or higher rating.

From Hell
It’s hard to ask for more than what we get in the excellent transfer of From Hell. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. The print is extremely clean, with no noise and not a single print flaw or speckle to be spotted anywhere. I did notice that the film had some trouble with contrast in extremely dark scenes, but considering that the film has many very dark and challenging scenes, it handles the contrast situation quite well overall. The color scheme of the film is artistically significant, and the transfer brings across the various colors, both vivid and subdued, both accurately and vibrantly.

From Hell comes with a DTS soundtrack as well as a Dolby 5.1 track. The DTS track is very good, with dialogue coming across crisply and cleanly along with environmental noises, and the music track well-balanced with both. It’s not as aggressive in its use of surround as other DTS tracks I’ve heard, but the overall sound quality is sure to please.

From Hell follows a new and very welcome trend in two-disc sets: it’s packaged in a slim single-width DVD case with a plastic disc-holder for the second disc inside, resulting in a DVD that’s convenient to store while also protecting both discs from being scratched or misplaced.

The menus are animated, themed to the film, and highly annoying, as they take several seconds to actually deliver you to the section of the DVD that you’ve just selected.

In the special features department, From Hell gets high marks and certainly merits its two-disc presentation. On the first disc, we get the film itself along with a full-length audio commentary by directors Albert and Allen Hughes, screenwriter Rafael Yglesias, choreographer Peter Deming, and actor Robbie Coltrane. There’s also a selection of deleted scenes and an alternate ending, with optional audio commentary from co-director Albert Hughes.

On the second disc, we get several hours’ worth of bonus features in the form of a number of featurettes offering insights into various elements of the making of From Hell. “Jack the Ripper: 6 Degrees of Separation” takes the viewer on a tour through the source materials about Jack the Ripper and the original police investigation. “A View from Hell” is a promotional featurette originally produced for HBO; introduced by Heather Graham, it offers short interviews with the directors, actors, and production crew of the film. Another featurette focuses on the production design of the film, with production designer Martin Childs offering in-depth information on this aspect of the film. The conversion of the graphic novel From Hell into the film of the same name is given its own featurette as well, along with a tour of the murder sites hosted by the Hughes brothers. Lastly, a short but quite interesting featurette entitled “Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder” takes a look at the nature and history of an alcoholic drink that plays a recurring role in the film. To round it all off, there’s a theatrical trailer for From Hell and for another film, Unfaithful.

From Hell
From Hell is not a perfect film, though it comes remarkably close to being an all-round success. Heather Graham is the weakest element of the film, but with an intriguing storyline, imaginative cinematography, and an engaging performance by Depp in the central role, the film still overcomes this obstacle to stand out as being a well-crafted movie. It’s visually rich, undeniably original, and certainly worth watching.