Strip away the fairy tale sheen of Sleepy Hollow, and From Hell feels like an extension of Tim Burton's adaptation of that grisly fable; both are Victorian period pieces boasting gorgeous, atmospheric cinematography, immaculate production design, and Johnny Depp starring as a detective whose investigation into a gruesome killing spree isn't altogether conventional. I've seen both movies at least four or five times now, but while Sleepy Hollow has a tense, eerie atmosphere that continues to draw me in, every trace of enthusiasm I once had for the Hughes Brothers' stylish attack on the Jack the Ripper legend has evaporated.
The pop culture status of Hannibal Lecter and a handful of real-life butchers like Ted Bundy have left modern audience almost expecting serial killers to be bright, deceptively charming, and at least somewhat well off. This was inconceivable in Victorian England -- in the twilight of the nineteenth century -- that a killer could be revealed as a surgeon or a professor hailing from London's social elite. Cavorting with a low-rent streetwalker, let alone mutilating one with surgical precision, was simply not something a proper British gentleman could even conceive. Detective Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp) suspects it is a man of class and prestige that's skulking the backwater streets of London in search of his prey, but his investigation is hampered at every turn, told time and again that Jack the Ripper must be a butcher, some other sort of tradesman, or, in these deeply anti-Semitic times, a Jew. It quickly becomes clear that a sprawling conspiracy is protecting the murderer, and one of From Hell's central conceits is that the identity of Jack the Ripper is almost incidental; it's the upper echelons of Victorian society as a whole that are truly to blame.
The Hughes Brothers saw From Hell as an opportunity to break out of the "black director" mold, having previously helmed Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, and the documentary American Pimp. Regardless of what you might think of the film, From Hell inarguably shatters that perception, not fitting comfortably into any of the traditional genre formulas. It's not a period police procedural by any stretch; Abberline rarely bothers to investigate at all, really, preferring instead to dope himself into a stupor with opium and follow the psychic visions that reveal themselves in that drug-addled haze. Even Abberline's more sober insights are at times drawn from his intimacy with opiates.
From Hell is bogged down by reams of dialogue and far too many scenes that are more interested in advancing the film's themes than its story, and tossing some strikingly graphic imagery in with the tedium makes for an uneasy mix. There's something strangely hypocritical about the way the film indicts Victorian society's coldly exploitative tendencies -- its embrace of the lobotomy and the almost sexual fascination that follows the unveiling of the Elephant Man, for instance -- yet From Hell is peppered with nudity, almost feral sex in dingy alleyways, and carefully crafted gore. One of the few things this adaptation of From Hell and Alan Moore's graphic novel share in common is the meticulous research and attention to even the smallest details, but the film crams in so much that it winds up feeling unfocused.
The tension and intrigue so prevalent throughout my first few viewings of From Hell had completely faded away my fourth or fifth time through, not only leaving me feeling bored but annoyed by its overreliance on visual gimmickry. The Hughes Brothers try to add in some flair by giving just about every visual trick in the book at least one stab. One impassioned sexual encounter early in the film unfolds in slow motion, while other shots are drastically sped up or lean on frantic, choppy editing to artificially add in a sense of urgency. Abberline's visions unfold in grainy, blown-out reversal stock, bombarded by an exaggerated palette of colors and visions of a dead wife to in a not altogether successful attempt to add some dimension to his thin characterization. The fact that the Ripper is draped in shadow for the most of the movie would seem to suggest that From Hell is supposed to at least be somewhat of a mystery, but there's really not all that much intrigue surrounding the Jack the Ripper's identity. On one hand, I appreciate that From Hell is light on the usual cat-and-mouse thriller theatrics, but there's not much of substance to bridge the gory murders with the slow-in-coming climax either, and the final denouement feels rushed. Heather Graham is sorely miscast as a gorgeous, borderline-virginal prostitute with a shaky British-by-way-of-Ireland accent, and the romance her character strikes with Abberline feels like pointless meddling from a studio that can't abide two pretty people starring together in a movie and not falling madly in love.
To be fair, there's a great deal about From Hell that I appreciate: the reproduction of these dingy streets of Victorian England, the artfully filthy costumes, its willingness to revel in some surprisingly graphic imagery, and the strength of most of its cast, particularly Johnny Deep, Robbie Coltrane's steadfast, Shakespeare-spouting police sergeant, and the always reliable Ian Holm as a royal doctor that advises Abberline throughout his search. The way the film bucks some of the usual conventions is intriguing at first, but it's neither suspenseful nor engaging enough to hold up to repeat viewings. From Hell is worth seeing once, but especially given the Blu-ray disc's bloated sticker price and its fairly unremarkable presentation as a whole, this disc is much better suited to a rental.
Video: Even a few years after its initial release, I found myself pointing to From Hell as one of the most instantly striking DVDs I owned. My expectations were similarly lofty for the Blu-ray disc's 2.39:1, AVC-encoded presentation, and even though what I'm about to say isn't close to being the general consensus on this release, I found myself feeling really let down by the limited effort Fox has invested this time around. Detail and an overall sense of definition are only modestly improved over the original DVD. The transfer has a dated, overprocessed look to it, riddled with edge enhancement and left with the coarse look of video rather than the film-like texture I went in expecting. The handful of sunny exteriors look fantastic, but dimly-lit interiors and the atmospheric night shots are hazy, grainy, and flat. Certainly some of this is owed to the original photography, but there's little doubt that this 1080p presentation is culled from the same five and a half year old transfer used for the DVD, and I can't help but think a new remaster would be a massive improvement.
Audio: Like the overwhelming majority of Blu-ray enthusiasts at the moment, a way to decode the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track on this disc remains elusive, although the 1.5 Mbps DTS core still sounds wonderful. The sound design makes effective use of all of the channels on-hand, offering a particularly strong sense of ambience, such as the clatter of horse hooves, the buzzing of flies in the morgue, and the din of the streets of Victorian England. Abberline's drug-addled visions also take advantage of the multichannel mix. Atmospherics are equally impressive throughout some of the film's storms, with its thunder as well as From Hell's score backed by a powerful low-end. Directionality is reasonably strong as well, even extending to the internal dialogue of a psychotic delusion late in the film. From Hell's dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly, not marred by any distortion and nicely balanced in the mix.
Other audio options include Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks in French and Spanish alongside subtitles in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean.
Extras: From Hell loses all of the extras from the second disc of the long since out-of-print collector's edition DVD set, discarding well over an hour of featurettes and historical notes. It continues to be a disappointment that Fox only sporadically shows any interest in carrying over extras from earlier editions of their films, but it's even more glaring in this case since there's no way to get this material other than trawling eBay or used DVD bins.
There are a few extras on this Blu-ray release, though, headed by an audio commentary with the Hughes Brothers, writer Rafael Yglesias, actor Robbie Coltrane, and director of photography Peter Deming. Spliced together from several different recording sessions, this is a considerably better than average commentary track. Despite the visual flair throughout From Hell, the discussion for the first half of the movie isn't littered with technical notes, instead preferring to discuss the storytelling, character motivations, and how the film tries to properly engage the audience. The many different drafts at many different studios are discussed, including how they stepped away from one failed version with an excessively talky third act, and the numerous changes made from Alan Moore's graphic novel are frequently touched on as well. One of the things I appreciated the most about this commentary is the sense of just how difficult it is to get a movie off the ground, especially while trying to maintain any sort of control or to add your own distinctive stamp to it. The Hughes Brothers and company tackle such topics as bickering with the studio, British legal hiccups, a page covertly added to a locked script, and the "evil, leechy, fucked-up people" in Hollywood. There's more of an emphasis on technique in the commentary's second hour, including a run through the Hughes' tag-team editing process. This is a strong track and well deserving of a listen.
Also included are more than twenty minutes of deleted scenes, upscaled to high definition but not offering nearly the sort of detail expected from a proper HD presentation. Much of the additional footage comes in quick bursts -- barrages of a couple additional lines of dialogue a piece, more of Abberline's visions, an alternate ending, and a good bit more screentime for Netley the coachman, including a, um, masturbation sequence. Nothing revelatory, but its inclusion is appreciated anyway. Co-director Albert Hughes offers optional audio commentary as well.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray release is a trivia track, detailing precisely where certain sequences were filmed, notes about the cast and crew's filmographies (taking particular glee in pointing out when they'd worked together in the past), footnotes to some of the references made throughout From Hell, and comments about the original graphic novel and the historical record. It's as varied as to briefly run through the history of lobotomy, the full text of the first letter sent by Jack the Ripper, the visual tricks used to make one actor of modest height appear more imposing on-screen, and cinematographer Peter Deming getting his start behind Evil Dead II's cameras. I'm usually not too keen on trivia tracks, but I enjoyed this one, although the trivia cards do tend to linger on-screen a good bit longer than necessary.
Conclusion: I really enjoyed From Hell my first few times through, but that enthusiasm has dwindled down to an almost completely indifferent shrug. This Blu-ray disc is worth a rental, but I was too underwhelmed by the middling quality of the 1080p video, the meager selection of extras, and the movie itself to recommend it, especially at Fox's unduly exorbitant list price. Rent It.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.