|From Hell (Director's Limited Edition)|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 14 May 2002|
Mention the name Jack the Ripper in a crowd. Watch everyone go silent for a moment, waiting for more news, or for the proper moment to digress about his or her own pet theories about the man who taught a city to fear the coming of the night.
The name alone summons up horrific murders and the foggy streets of 19th-century Victorian London. For over a hundred years, the public has been interested in the identity of the murderer of at least five prostitutes in the Whitechapel area. The study of the arcane and bloody murders has become a science unto itself, creating a field of professionals that pride themselves on being called Ripperologists.
In "From Hell," Johnny Depp stars as Scotland Yard Inspector Frederick Abberline, the opium-addicted but brilliant detective assigned to track down Jack the Ripper. Robbie Coltrane plays Sergeant Peter Godley, Abberline’s friend and chief compatriot on investigations.
The menu on Disc One opens up with the explosive beating of a heart. The rhythm isn’t a staccato hammering of pure fear, but the beat is definitely elevated and charged with adrenaline. The beat sets the tone for the viewing experience after the Play button is hit.
Chapter 1 opens with the hiss of rain coming from all the speakers, then the icon explosion announcing sound by THX. The rain hiss reaches a more vibrant level, then melds into the snarl of a match catching flame, then the sibilant kiss of a lover as the flame is passed onto a candle wick. This simple act, hardwired with surround sound, definitely gets the viewer’s attention. As the opium preparation concludes, thunder hammers from the center and main speakers, building until the noise wakes the subwoofer to booming life.
The mournful voice of a train opens Chapter 2 and the viewer is suddenly immersed in the nightlife that haunted London during the ultra-conservative reign of Queen Victoria. At the time, though the film doesn’t go into all the political and economic reasons for the population boom, London is nearly buried in a morass of humanity.
During the Napoleonic Wars early in the 19th century, huge numbers of men went off to war, leaving women and children to take over the men’s jobs as England became the king of world industry. More people left the countryside to live in the city, believing the promise of growing industry was better than scrabbling a living out of a failing farm. The Crimean War in the middle of that century caused another interruption, which left women and children destitute and without jobs when the men returned home. Since the men were barely able to feed themselves, few of them had any desire to get married. Many women turned to prostitution just to eat and provide sheter for themselves.
The story picks up with Mary Kelly, who was the last of the Ripper’s known victims, as students of Jack’s handiwork will note. Already, a ticking clock is in place, and time is counting down toward Mary’s death. The industrial city scenes throughout the film are excellent, giving a good representation of what it must have been like to live in London while smokestacks poured pollution into the air nearly 24 hours a day.
Mary Kelly is plying her trade, and as she walks through the street, an undercurrent of voices, coach wheels and hooves beating against cobblestones streams without pause from the surround sound system. The viewer feels as though he or she is walking that same street with Mary, hurrying to avoid getting run down. The clink of a pushcart at one point is a unique noise. When Mary steps into an alley and gets threatened by one of the local hoods, the sounds drift away from the center speaker(s) to the mains and then diminish, underscoring the impression that she’s far from help and vulnerable.
Chapter 3 gives the audience a look at London in the day. The lot of Mary and her fellow prostitutes haven’t improved any, but the city looks at least a little more friendly and optimistic. The constant hammering of construction going on that issues from the front speakers, lending authenticity to the city’s growth. During an early scene of the abduction of Annie Crook and her artist husband Albert, the crash of destruction fires up the surround sound. The scene cuts are marked by detonations that blast out of the subwoofer. Only a short time later, night descends over the city again, and the sound is magnified by the flickering whisper of the gas streetlamp.
Abberline lies in an opium-induced stupor, "chasing the dragon" as the vice was known at the time. We learn that the Scotland Yard inspector has visions of a psychic nature while drugged. Birds fly around him, and the liquid sound of the Ripper’s knife blade hacking through flesh rolls from the speakers. Abberline’s heartbeat picks up the pace, growing louder as he witnesses the violent scene.
Later in the vision, the squeaks of rats echo all around the viewer, making us believe for a moment that we are seated inside a room filled with rodents. The buzz of flies thunders from the speakers.
Switching back to the action in the opium den, the doors explode open with enhanced audio. When Abberline is thrust face-first into a bowl of water, the underwater bubbling sounds rumble through the subwoofer. From there, the viewer is taken into the police surgeon’s morgue, and the rasp of a sponge against dead flesh comes through strong and clear.
The scene changes in Chapter 5 to the sanitarium where Annie Crook is being kept. The audience watches as Sir William Gull takes a group of students into the observation room to watch as a young doctor performs a lobotomy on Annie. The crunch of the hammer smashing the blade through her skull and into her brain is particularly hard to take. Later in the chapter, Mary and her friends meet in the local pub, called Ten Bells, and the undercurrent of conversations carried by the main and rear speakers makes us feel as though we are sitting in on the discussion.
Chapter 6 depicts the first murder. When the woman goes down under the Ripper’s blade, her hand drags along a dirty window with a shriek of movement that comes through clearly and creepily on the surround sound system. Then the subwoofer kicks in again as a storm pushes into the city.
A police officer discovers the body the next day. The scene shows great moves with the elapsed time shot, and even provides the police whistles echoing in the background to better create the overall tone. When Abberline arrives only a few moments later, the audience sees Scotland Yard go into full investigative mode. The camera flashes throb through the speakers, brushing up against the subwoofer’s tolerances. The retching sounds of the police surgeon and his assistant are particularly loud and realistic in the domed room where they work.
The stripped-bare grape stem Abberline finds at the scene is one of the most telling clues. The burning streetlamps in another scene make sounds like long, drawn-out sighs. Later, while bathing, Abberline drinks absinthe, and the audience gets another view inside one of his visions. This one is combined with a character reveal and memory, and the voices in the vision burble and echo like a stream through pebbles.
At a funeral in Chapter 9, a bird flies across the screen, and the sound moves into the left main speaker before disappearing. Later in the chapter, the four women are kicked out of their rented room, again reminding the audience how brutal and hard the lives of the women are.
Chapter 10 holds the scratchy and familiar sound of a gramophone. As the Ripper cuts through his dinner, the noise of the silverware is unexpectedly loud, drawing even more attention to the bloody meat the killer is eating. A bell bongs, rolling through the surround sound system and setting the coach driver and the Ripper to work. The horses’ hooves echo along the bridge and the audience is treated to another magnificent shot of London. The clank of the coach’s steps unfurling detonates from the center and main speakers, echoing in the subwoofer. By now the sound is a threatening one, like the swish of a guillotine’s blade. Later, when Dark Annie Chapman perishes beneath the Ripper’s unforgiving blade, the sound of a passing train rips through the speakers and the subwoofer, pushing the audience’s adrenaline up with it.
In Chapter 11, voices crying out to see the murder scene issue from the main and rear speakers, making the audience feel that we are in the middle of the investigation and the attention. The tarp the police use to hide the corpse cracks and whips through the front and center speakers.
A struck match, by now a familiar and effective signature note in the film, flares to life opens Chapter 13.
Chapter 14 provides a beautiful shot of Buckingham Palace. When a coach moves across the screen, the sound of the ironbound wheels rolling over the cobblestones runs through the mains and center speaker from left to right. Another night falls over the city, and the audience gets another terrific sight of the great metropolis.
Chapter 15 offers another confrontation. The street scene echoes with the voices of the night. An assault is explosive, shuddering through the subwoofer for added effect. Later, Mary’s silverware clinking against the soup bowl provides a sharp counterpoint to the calm conversation she shares with the inspector in the middle of the other hubbub.
During a fire the "whoosh" of a flaming barrel rolling across the scene is a liquid rush through the speakers, and the resulting explosion blasts through the subwoofer. As chaos breaks loose, the whistles of the London Bobbies issue from all speakers, making the viewer feel as though we’re in the middle of the street.
Chapter 17 begins with the rattle and squeak of a prison wagon rolling into the Marylebone Work-House. A scene in a beautiful park has bird calls and trickling water fountains echoing through the front speakers.
Chapter 19 shows an elevated train chugging across Pickering’s in the day, and the street noises swirl through the surround sound system, bringing the viewer into the heart of the neighborhood. Later, disjointed voices roll through Abberline’s head as he reads letters supposedly from Jack the Ripper. Chapter 20 hammers the viewer with the sound of women fighting.
Chapter 21 echoes with the crash of horses’ hooves as an ominous coach weaves through the city’s streets. Chapter 22 begins with the threatening thunder of the coach’s steps unfurling. The sound is quickly picked up by the arrival of a real storm that deluges the city. The hiss of falling rain becomes a constant for the next chapter as well.
The surround sound system kicks in again in an eerie manner as the inspector has another vision that sets him into the final course for confrontation against the Ripper. As Abberline staggers numbly out into the street under a gas-powered streetlight, the hiss of the gas feeding the flame rolls through the left main speaker in passing, making us feel as though we are on the inspector’s heels.
The fourth murder takes place with blinding suddenness, and the blood from the gaping neck wound gurgles from the center speaker(s) louder than the rain falling in the mains. Abberline experiences more visions, and the muted, underwater effect streams through the main and center speakers.
When Abberline uses his special gifts while actively pursuing Ripper, the liquid pulse of the grapes in the vision is that of a heart, and underscores the deadly game as well as Abberline’s obvious intention to continue playing.
Chapter 26 has a really nice, albeit unexplained, visual touch. When confronted by Abberline, the killer’s eyes suddenly turn a deep, magnetic black.
Chapter 27 contains an explosive series of scenes. The crash and tumble of the coach screeches and thunders through the subwoofer, while the frightened neighing of the horses issues from the main and center speakers.
Finished with the killing, the Ripper descends into the darkest well of madness. A voice that whispers to him comes from over his shoulder, through the left main speaker in a matter that is totally unsettling.
The hunt isn’t over, though, because Abberline is more determined than ever to bring the Ripper to justice. And there are still a number of twists yet to go in the tangled skeins created by the story and the Hughes Brothers’ touch with the camera.
As a two-disc set, "From Hell" offers a number of extras. The commentary by the Hughes Brothers as well as the screenwriter and cinematographer and Robbie Coltrane is excellent. But the offerings really shine when hewing close to the bone of the Ripper mythos. The interviews with noted Ripperologists and the tour of the crime scenes draw in the audience that invests the time to watch them. The special, hosted by Heather Graham, is particularly entertaining, as is the discussions of Alan Moore’s graphic novel that spawned the film. The deleted scenes are very nice, and the opening scene of Shanghai that was cut from the film is extremely beautiful.
"From Hell" is an elegant film that quickly and certainly weaves its magic, transporting the viewer into the dark and dangerous nights of Victorian England. For the serious collector who loves the atmosphere emoted by the storyline, someone that enjoys the terrific imagery, or Johnny Depp or Hughes Brothers fans, "From Hell" has to go on the shelf. Moviegoers that enjoy suspense films, period pieces, a great plotline filled with twists and turns, or striking imagery will enjoy this movie.