Flashy flamboyance proves to be the fatal flaw of `Hell'

Movie review: Film's vision gets lost in its excesses.

October 19, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

All who are applauding the Jack the Ripper film From Hell as a visionary sort of horror movie should ponder three words: Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Francis Ford Coppola's bombastic 1992 vampire movie also won some great reviews and did flash business before word spread that it choked on its own showy excesses of camerawork and set design. From Hell has the buzz that comes from being based on a superb comic-book-turned-graphic-novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. But the movie, oddly enough, is like a comic book of a comic book.

While the graphic novel renders images of murderous fantasy, forlorn sex and atrocious murders in finely detailed black and white, the film depicts the action in broad strokes, with swooping movements, jagged angles, eye-popping colors - and no feel at all for the careful building of historic and fictional revelations.

And while the book employs a cast of hundreds to flesh out the theory that the Ripper murders protected Queen Victoria's family and preserved the Empire, the movie focuses on the investigation of one inspector (Johnny Depp), and his love for a potential victim (Heather Graham).

Depp does drugs, has visions, and gives in to his increasingly familiar mode of dissipation mixed with melancholy; Graham performs capably, but her self-respecting woman of the streets is still a pale retread of Nancy in Oliver Twist and Oliver! With far fewer scenes, Ian Holm as an aging aristocratic medic acts the skirts and pants off both of them.

In this failed romantic-melodrama framework, the anti-Victoria theory feels forced and pompous, and the abrupt appearances of figures like the Elephant Man are as meretricious as John Wayne popping up in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Apart from the royal family, Freemasonry takes the biggest hit. But in the story's truncated form, viewers will probably be dumbfounded at the notion that there was some relationship between Masonic rites and the Ripper's ritual slashings of Whitechapel whores.

The script by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias sets up the movie as a quasi-mystery, which means that it skips from one gory pond to another, each swimming with red herrings. The many over-acting suspects include a pimp and his enforcer, and sleek special agents under orders from the royal family.

As if realizing that any mystery fan will recognize the culprit in this piece right away, the Hughes Brothers have tried to divert viewers with a relentlessly hyperbolic style that takes its cue from the absinthe and laudanum-inspired hallucinations of Depp's detective.

They try too hard. In one of the movie's more piquant touches, the Ripper lures his victims to their deaths with sprigs of grapes - then an upper-class delicacy. So the Hughes Brothers provide us with grapes pulsating like the human heart. It isn't a vintage image.

From Hell

Starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham

Directed by the Hughes Brothers

Rated R (violence)

Released by 20th Century Fox

Running time 123 minutes

Sun score * 1/2

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