The Hughes Brothers have gained a following from their intense, dramatic earlier work, such as the Vietnam drama "Dead Presidents" and "Menace II Society". "From Hell" is the first movie that they have made since 1995's "Dead Presidents", but it isn't a project unfamiliar to the two, who first came across the project at Disney, when they were presented with the choice of this or "Con Air", among other things. After rewrites to this adaptation of a reportedly massive graphic novel and what looks to be a great deal of research on the era, the final film was released late last year.
The Hughes Brothers have somewhat succeeded in creating a gothic chiller/drama. The film has elements that are absolutely marvelous and fascinated me, but it also had several negatives that I was less than thrilled with. The film stars Johnny Depp as Abbeline, a detective who just happens to be addicted to opium and absinthe; his hallucinations and drug-clouded instincts manage to often lead him to the source of the trouble.
The film opens with a focus upon prostitutes that walk the streets of London in the 1800's; mainly, the audience is involved with Mary Kelly (Heather Graham). Kelly and her friends are in trouble, as their boss is demanding higher pay when the girls are barely making enough to live as it is. To make matters far worse, a killer is on the loose, targeting prostitutes - at this point, Abberline is called in to investigate, eventually falling for Mary.
The best aspect of "From Hell" is its look. Cinematographer Peter Deming perfectly captures the stunning production design by Martin Childs ("Quills", "Shakespeare in Love") beautifully. Camera tricks are used, but not overused, adding to the visual style. Costume design, art direction, set design, everything - this spare-no-expense production has done a superb job recreating this universe; there's great texture and detail in nearly every scene.
Somehow, I wasn't finding myself involved in the story or characters, as the film seemed to have more atmosphere and style than character development and plot. The Hughes Brothers also keep the energy of the film too restrained; the film recieves some jolts of intensity now and then, but has several stretches that are too slow and subdued to generate suspense or tension. In other words, I was never really bored, but I was never really that engaged, either. Subplots are brought up, but never really followed through on - maybe this is due to streamlining the immense graphic novel.
The performances are very good. Johnny Depp is one of the most remarkable actors of today, but I've become a bit less interested in roles where he seems to be playing a slight variation of previous efforts (here, he sort of seems to be channeling his "Sleepy Hollow" character). Most involving when he undergoes a complete change (the stunning transformation into Hunter S. Thompson for "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas"), Depp is still effective here. I've quite liked Heather Graham in comedies and she provided a haunting performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights". Here, she gets the accent right, passionately plays the role, but doesn't find herself with much of a character, nor does she have any chemistry with Depp. The film tries to add a bit of a romance between the two, but by the end, it remains just that - only a bit. The supporting cast, including the terrific talents of Robbie Coltrane, Ian Holm and Katrin Cartlidge, are generally not given a whole lot to do.
"From Hell" is an interesting case. I appreciated the film's extremely well-crafted sets, remarkable visuals and good performances. Yet, the film needed to build in intensity and never really did, staying somewhat flat and lacking in suspense, partly due to lack of character development. "From Hell" is not a bad film and it's a film worth viewing, but it's approached in a way that I felt that the visuals were the element that held my interest a bit more than characters and story. Note: the film is rated R for scenes of violence that are disturbing.
VIDEO: 20th Century Fox presents "From Hell" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film is, by design, dark, foggy and somewhat soft. Yet, Peter Deming's grim, moody cinematography still looks outstanding with Fox's beautiful transfer to DVD. Sharpness and detail are not remarkable in the traditional, sleek sense of most modern pictures, but impressive in the fact that the dark, shadowy scenes are still well-defined, with a smooth, film-like appearance.
As for flaws, well...this section is certainly going to be shorter than usual. Fox has used a pristine print; there are no instances of specks, marks or other wear. There are also no instances of grain, either. Given the film's murky and occasionally foggy appearance, it's impressive that only one or two tiny traces of pixelation were present. Edge enhancement was absent from the image.
The film's color palette is fascinating; the streets are presented with either bland, cold colors in the day or dark, earthy colors at night. Yet, there are instances of rich, deep colors that come up at times which are simply gorgeous. Colors remain accurate, strong and problem-free. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones were accurate. The presentation is also THX-Approved; while that hasn't always been a good thing recently (see Buena Vista's "Tombstone: Vista Series", this is an excellent effort from Fox and THX.
SOUND: "From Hell" is presented by Fox in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. When I go into reviewing a drama such as this one, I mainly look for strong ambience; how well does the sound transport the viewer to into the location or simply, the scene? Some agressive surround use, if appropriate, is certainly a plus. As for "From Hell", scenes on the streets are busy and convincingly realistic, with people walking the streets and carriages moving around the listening space. The film's nicely layered soundtrack adds subtle, but appreciated texture to many sequences. There are certainly some more agressive moments, though: the Depp character's visions include voices coming from around the room and some other sequences provide more distinct and intense sound effects from the rear speakers.
Audio quality remained exceptional throughout. Rabin's score has remarkable presence and fullness. It's a very good score, but the dynamic and crisp way its presented in the listening space on this presentation makes it an even more enjoyable element of the film's audio. Equally crisp and clear are sound effects and dialogue. Bass is also strong at points. This is a very good soundtrack; while I don't think it'll be used as a demo presentation, it does a very appropriate and very enjoyable job enveloping the viewer in this world.
MENUS: Fox has created beautiful and haunting animated main menus for both discs, using film-themed images and the score. The only problem? The text is somewhat hard to read on the main menus and even a bit more difficult on some of the sub-menus (such as the deleted scenes menu on the first disc).
EXTRAS: Fox is releasing "From Hell" in a "Limited Director's Edition" 2-DVD Set. What this means is that this 2-DVD set will be available for a few months then there will be another release, which will only include disc one of this 2-DVD set.
Commentary: This is a commentary by directors Albert and Allen Hughes, screenwriter Rafael Yglesias, cinematographer Peter Deming, and actor Robbie Coltrane. This is a very informative and interesting commentary track that goes into all aspects of the production. The speakers have been recorded separately and do keep from what is most dismal about some commentary tracks - the speakers (well, with the exception of screenwriter Yglesias) rarely narrate the on-screen events and don't get stuck in repetitive praise for those they worked with. The Hughes Brothers provide insight into the kind of research that they did and their thoughts on translating the graphic novel. Yglesias and Deming do a solid amount of the chatting, as well. Yglesias discusses the writing process and the society of the time, while Deming talks about the look of the film and technical details. Coltrane provides a good general overview of his performance, the character and working with the other members of the cast and crew. A solid track, nicely edited and informative.
THX Optimode Tests: THX audio/video tests are included.
Deleted Scenes: No less than 20 deleted scenes are included with optional commentary from co-director Albert Hughes. Some of the sequences I found rather interesting and developed characters somewhat, but were cut for matters of pace/time. The co-director provides a lot of detail about why each scene was edited out. The deleted scenes are the last supplement on the first DVD.
View From Hell Featurette: This is a 14-minute "making of" that's hosted by Heather Graham (who, I must say, looks waaaay hot in what she's wearing in the featurette). As for information, this featurette actually does provide a fair amount of interesting interviews with the cast and crew, who discuss the production and the characters. There isn't a great deal of depth to the proceedings, but the actors at least provided somewhat insightful chat. Did I mention that hostess Heather Graham looks way stunning?
Trailers: Trailers for "From Hell" (1.85:1/2.0) and Fox's upcoming theatrical release, "Unfaithful" (pan & scan/2.0). The "From Hell" trailer is effective, but not really an entirely accurate portrayal of the movie, making it look as if it's more of a horror film when it's more of a mystery/drama. "Unfaithful" looks ok, but it would be nice if director Adrian Lyne didn't keep going over territory similar to the kind of stories he's done in prior films.
Six Degrees of Jack the Ripper: This is a 30-minute featurette that provides a strong amount of detail about the case. The piece provides interviews, photos and other footage about the real-life situations and locations. There are occasional instances throughout this piece where a magnifying glass pops up; clicking on them provides more information about what's currently being shown.
Production Design: Production designer Martin Childs provides the majority of the discussion in this 12-minute featurette that looks at how the production designer went about building a massive set that recreates the area that's featured in the film.
Also: A featurette that discusses the changes from the graphic novel, an 8-minute tour of the sets by the Hughes Brothers and a featurette about Absinthe.
Final Thoughts: "From Hell" is a visually impressive drama/mystery that nonetheless never really develops the characters that well, nor provides the kind of suspense the story may have been capable of offering. It's still a film that those interested should try as a rental. Fox's DVD edition is marvelous, providing fantastic audio/video quality and a great deal of supplements. Again, definitely a renter for those interested who haven't seen it - those who are already fans of the film should certainly purchase the DVD.