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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Jack's Back!
by Betty Jo Tucker

After watching From Hell, the latest screen version of Jack the Ripperís horrific crimes, I started wondering how many movies have been made about that infamous serial killer. Iím tempted to say From Hell makes it one too many, but that wouldnít be nice. Besides, as one of Johnny Deppís biggest fans, I hate to pan any film he stars in (with the exception of Ed Wood). Donít get me wrong, Deppís portrayal of a troubled police inspector assigned to the case ranks as one of his best. Iím just disappointed by the way this film uses in-your-face graphic bloodshed instead of dramatic elements and character development to keep viewers interested.

For me, From Hell serves as an excellent example of how films have changed for better and for worse since 1944. Thatís the year I saw my first movie about Jack the Ripper. Filmed in black and white, The Lodger drew me into the killerís thought processes and held me spellbound with its exquisite suspense. If I recall correctly, the murders took place off-screen.

In contrast, From Hell concentrates on the gruesome acts themselves, hoping to shock the audience with each slash of the knife. It deals only briefly with Jack the Ripperís psyche. Still, modern cinematic techniques give us a more realistic look at the London of 1888 and a better feel for the desperate squalor in Whitechapel, an area where the crimes were committed.

Iím surprised to learn From Hell was filmed in Czechoslovakia, not England. "We couldnít find anyplace here that resembled Victorian Whitechapel from all angels, so we ended up building it in the middle of a field near Prague," says Oscar-winning production designer Martin Childs (Shakespeare in Love). "The finishing touch was the creation of streets made from hundreds of centuries-old cobblestones borrowed from local breweries and civic institutions. We were very lucky that Prague was undergoing a major restoration and digging up many of its streets."

The term "glorious technicolor" doesnít apply here. Everything looks dark and gloomy to fit the mood of the movie. "Weíre using mist to create atmosphere," explains cinematographer Peter Deming (Mulholland Drive) who admits he wanted as much atmosphere as possible while still retaining warmth. To get this effect, Deming diffused and softened light by placing silk stockings over the rear of camera lenses. The result? Lots of atmosphere, but very poor visibility.

Based on Alan Mooreís 1999 graphic novel, From Hell blames a Crown conspiracy for the murder of prostitutes who knew too much about a member of the Royal Family. Playing Inspector Fred Abberline (complete with a charming Cockney accent), Depp convinced me of his empathy for the targeted victims, especially beautiful Mary Kelly (Heather Graham from Say It Isnít So). He projects an edgy sensitivity thatís quite appealing here. I never tire of watching this unique actor on the big screen, even during annoying drug use scenes, which I usually hate. The camera seems to love Deppís face, lingering frequently on those dark, mysterious eyes. And thatís fine with me.

Who is Jack the Ripper? Among the suspects, From Hell rounds up high-class characters played by such distinguished British actors as Ian Richardson (Dark City), Ian Holm (The Madness of King George), and Terence Harvey (Secrets and Lies). Itís like a Masterpiece Theatre reunion. Robbie Coltrane (Cracker) adds his massive bulk and talent to the film as Deppís loyal assistant, a Scotsman who almost believes in the Inspectorís drug-induced visions.

Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society), this new Jack the Ripper film arrives just in time for Halloween. I think it contains enough blood and gore to satisfy any slasher flick fan. Nevertheless, I plan on getting my frights this year with a second viewing of Sleepy Hollow, a much better Johnny Depp movie.

(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "R" for strong violence, gore, sexuality, language, and drug content.)

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