Long ago, British police received a letter from a man who sought to take credit for the Jack the Ripper murders. He signed his missive, "From hell." In the film of the same name, the Hughes brothers ("Menace II Society," "Dead Presidents") reach into the hell of 1888 London and pull out an eerily horrific, if preposterously inaccurate, tale of prostitution, opium addiction and serial murder.
Based on the 1999 graphic novel by Alan Moore, "From Hell" takes the real-life characters and facts of the Ripper case and surrounds them with a mixture of legitimate theories as to the killer's true identity and blatant falsehoods. Were the movie clearly labeled as fiction, the latter could more easily be forgiven. Instead, the story adds fabricated details to the actual crimes, thereby giving the impression that the wild accusations of a cover-up -- leveled at members of the British royal family, among others -- are true.
Despite the off-base history lesson, the film is visually and dramatically gripping, thanks to well-photographed sequences of drug-induced dreaming and a solid performance by Johnny Depp as the chief inspector on the case, Fred Abberline. Going through a private hell of his own because of his opium addiction and personal demons, Abberline throws himself into both the Ripper case and the arms of a prostitute and victim-to-be named Mary Kelly. Heather Graham, who plays Kelly, is merely mediocre; a stronger performance is turned in by Robbie Coltrane as Sgt. Godley, Abberline's companion on the case. Godley is also the inspector's closest mate, literally picking up his friend on several occasions after Abberline "chases the dragon" with an opium pipe.
Moore's story addresses only a few key theories, including the possible involvement of Queen Victoria's grandson, Prince Albert, and the queen's personal physician, William Gull -- the latter masterfully portrayed by veteran actor Ian Holm ("The Madness of King George," "Chariots of Fire"). The Freemasons are also fingered, their pentagonal star symbol used as a geographic guide to the five murders.
Devotees of the infamous case will be interested in the narrative's numerous factual details. Viewers with no especial interest in the so-called "Whitechapel murderer," however, will find much of the film's appeal buried beneath Allen and Albert Hughes' excessively stylized and grotesque depictions of Victorian London. Slow and shallow at its outset, the film initially sacrifices mood for visual distraction. As the murders mount, the tale picks up pace and energy. The terror that gripped London -- particularly the prostitutes who were being ritualistically slaughtered -- is palpable. At this point, the visuals become an asset: They imbue the movie with a true sense of evil that previous Ripper films, such as "The Lodger" and "The Man in the Attic," didn't have.
The Hughes have adapated Moore's novel with a sense of surreal horror, and the film should be appreciated on that level. For all its dramatic and historical gaffes, "From Hell" rarely fails to entertain.