From Hell, the sensational and accomplished Jack the Ripper thriller directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, takes full, violent advantage of the license opened up by several decades of extravagantly bloody popcorn horror films. In recent years, the horror genre, driven by hell-raiser special effects and the popularity of all those jokey mascot stalkers (Jason, Freddy, Pinhead), has been reduced to a carnival of jolts designed for the back shelves of video stores. ”From Hell,” an entrancingly literate and old-fashioned mystery with a shivery note of dread at its center, is that rare thing, a horror film of genuine artistry and excitement. The Hughes brothers work with commanding restraint — they’re more interested in disturbing you than in getting you to leap under your seat in fright — yet they are hardly ones to step back from operatic mayhem. As filmmakers, they have specialized in scalding portraits of the American inner city, and they now reveal an imagination that slashes its way across eras.
Working from a finely carpentered script by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias (it was adapted from Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s even more densely textured graphic novel), the Hughes brothers take us deep inside the gaslight-and-cobblestones world of London in 1888, a murky Victorian maze in which the forces of squalor and civility remain at once separate and secretly conjoined. In the Whitechapel district, a teeming red-light ghetto where cockney ladies of the night rub up against beefy boozers in alleyways, an anonymous madman in white gloves and a top hat is on the loose, luring his victims with grapes, the ominous crack of his unfolding coach steps a hidden invitation to murder.
Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), a peach-skinned prostitute, and her circle of working-girl friends are bawdy, impoverished, and touchingly dependent, and it is hardly a coincidence that the killer is targeting them. He commits his deeds, however, in ways grisly enough to defy the wildest rationalization. Employing a velvet-lined surgeon’s box of gleaming saws and knives, he removes the most intimate of body parts, inventing a slaughter as ritualistic as it is maniacal. This isn’t merely a novel form of murder. It’s a new way of thinking, a sadism so pitiless and refined it suggests a world in which death, let alone life, no longer enjoys the protection of God.
Stumbling onto a corpse in the fog, a bobby blows his police whistle, and that quaint, sad alarm is like a song of impotence next to the horror that’s called it forth. The London cops haven’t a clue as to how to catch Jack the Ripper, the first modern serial killer. Like the victims, they are blinded by their first assumption: that a fiend this hideous couldn’t possibly be a gentleman, a specimen of the elite classes. What they can’t get their minds around, but what anyone from the century of Ted Bundy and Osama bin Laden knows too well, is that it’s often precisely the man of intelligence and privilege who can afford to so luxuriate in his dark side.
In ”From Hell,” science has become the new religion, with medical students gawking at John Merrick and the ”miracle” of lobotomy, and the walls between classes are everywhere yet breaking down at the same time. Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), a police inspector with a low-key Sherlockian bent, is already several steps ahead of the investigation. He’s a psychic druggie, an opium addict who laces his delirium with absinthe and laudanum, all as a way of hallucinating dreams of murder that may have yet to take place. This fantastical conceit sounds like the purest of hokum, but the Hughes brothers, drawing on the quicksilver techniques of MTV and Oliver Stone, ”The Silence of the Lambs” and ”Seven,” lend the movie an eerie technological realism. They give us flickering vérité flashes of the human soul turned inside out. ”From Hell” plunges into the late 19th century only to conjure up visions of grainy bad-dream slaughter that seem to slice that century, if not the movie, apart.
This is the rare contemporary whodunit that truly works. The suspects hail from high and low, whether it’s the hatchet-faced crime boss with a blade that darts out of his sleeve or the aristocratic surgeon who regards the grubby classes as inhuman. You may feel you know in your bones who the killer is, yet each time a new suspicion is floated, you’re seduced into leaning that way. The solution to the mystery is satisfyingly tricky and resonant, as Abberline, led by the guidance of Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), a physician to the royal family, pieces together a black plot that involves the police, the order of the Freemasons, and a highly secret but significant baby. The conspiracy amounts to a spiritual cross-section of fin-de-siàcle London. Depp holds the tale together with his canny quietude and woe, and Graham, in her first radiant performance since ”Boogie Nights,” anchors the movie’s deep-grained empathy for the victimization of women. ”From Hell” depicts a crusade of messianic evil, yet it never exploits that horror. It sends you out, instead, haunted by the calculated extremes of malevolence that are the sinister shadow of the modern age.