Filmmakers have been cocking up novels for decades. Now no graphic novel is safe. You'd think that Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, an obsessive retelling of the Jack the Ripper case, would be a natural for a simple cinematic transfer. What is a graphic novel but a refined and detailed storyboard for an imaginary movie? Yet twin auteurs Albert and Allen Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) felt compelled to inflict their own vision on Moore's opus. The result resembles one of the Ripper's crime scenes: lurid, sloppy, and missing a few key organs--in this case, brains and heart.
Heather Graham plays Mary Kelly, a prostitute working London's seedy Whitechapel district in the autumn of 1888--a very bad place and time to be on the streets if you happen to be friends with Ann Crook (Joanna Page), a fellow hooker with a baby by an enigmatic gentleman lover. When Ann disappears and Mary's other friends start turning up dead and mutilated, police Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) takes the case. The mournful detective receives inspiration for his sleuthing from dreamlike visions, and no wonder--he puffs opium and swills absinthe-and-laudanum cocktails like a 19th-century Hunter S. Thompson. During his sober moments, Abberline develops a yen for poor Mary and follows the Ripper's trail to a conspiracy involving the monarchy itself.
Bloody mayhem, a complex mystery, a love story, more than a dozen significant characters, pointed social critique, assorted red herrings, Freemasonry, barbarous 19th-century mental-health treatment--that's a lot to handle in just over two hours of screen time. The Hughes' unfortunate response is to throw everything they've got at the problem: showy shots and funky film stocks, London skylines that look like second-unit outtakes from The Crow, and other pea-soup-thick "atmosphere." Meanwhile, any real suspense, story momentum, and decent characterization trickle away down the gutters. Several poorly used British actors (including Robbie Coltrane, Ian Holm, Lesley Sharp, and Katrin Cartlidge) do their best, but Depp, spouting incongruous Cockney, sleepwalks through his role, and Graham, is woefully miscast. Her perfect teeth, clear skin, and valley-girl brogue make it seem as if she wound up in Whitechapel after getting thrown out of the mall.
Given such a great story, it's tough not to root for From Hell. But for every momentary sign of encouragement (all the Hughes allow us to see of the Ripper's first murder is the flashing glint of an increasingly bloody blade), there's a clumsy attempt at horror or a groan-worthy anachronism (Abberline nods out listening to a Victrola-type phonograph that wasn't even invented until 10 years later). Then there's the filmmakers' ham-handed supposition that Jack the Ripper "gave birth to the 20th century." Maybe so, but as any Alan Moore fan can surely attest after seeing this movie, there are worse crimes.