The Hughes brothers resurrect the menance to victorian society in this shocker

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated October 19, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Heather Graham: Jurgen Vollmer

Prague is suffering from a severe shortage of horse manure. You can find just about everything else you’d need to mount a major Hollywood production in this snow globe of a city filled with fairy-tale castles and storybook spires — even if your movie happens to be set in the more pungent alleyways of 19th-century London — but forget about horse manure.

”We’ve tried everything,” says one of the Hughes brothers (Albert, to be precise, but Allen is right next to him, nodding), complaining about the lack of fresh set dressing. ”We even put the horses in diapers, in case, you know, something happened. But nothing. The s— is not hitting the fan.” Not yet, anyway — although with the Hughes brothers, it’s usually only a matter of time.

What the outspoken 29-year-old twins are doing in Prague — aside from putting Pampers on ponies — is shooting ”From Hell,” their first major feature since 1995’s ”Dead Presidents” and only their third film since they debuted nearly a decade ago with the blistering gangsta drama ”Menace II Society.” An atmospheric whodunit about the hunt for Jack the Ripper, it stars Johnny Depp as an opium-smoking, absinthe-sipping Scotland Yard inspector named Abberline (who has crime-solving visions when he’s high), Robbie Coltrane as Godley, his Shakespeare-spouting deputy, and Heather Graham as Mary Kelly, a beautiful streetwalker who finds herself on the Ripper’s to-do-in list.

In other words, it’s exactly the sort of tale from the ghetto the brothers are always telling, packed with slimy pimps, corrupt cops, and random acts of mayhem. Except this time the ghetto is Whitechapel, the drive-bys are committed with a horse-drawn carriage, and the violence — which somehow manages to be both less graphic and more gory than in their previous films — might not be so random. Another difference: There isn’t a single black person on screen, which may prove to be the biggest shock of all.

”People get freaked out that we’re doing this,” says Allen, escorting a visitor into the massive replica of Whitechapel that’s been erected on the outskirts of Prague. ”They get all offended. They think we’re doing some sort of Merchant Ivory period piece.” Albert finishes his brother’s thought: ”Which is why we did it. There’s this conception out there that we only do a certain kind of film — a shoot-’em-up Negro type of movie — so we decided to go for something different.”

First, though, they’ll have to get their manure together. ”We only have a limited amount,” Albert says, explaining their stopgap solution to the shortage. ”So we just keep moving the same stuff around the set. People in the theaters won’t notice — unless they’re looking really hard — but it’s the same s— in every scene.”