Alan Moore's graphic novels have been adapted for the big screen several times over the last decade, including such high profile films as 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' and 'V for Vendetta.' In each instance, however, the British author has been openly dissatisfied with the end result. One of Moore's most notorious and public disputes occurred over the 2001 filmed adaptation of "From Hell." Although both works speculate on the identity and motives of Jack the Ripper, Moore's graphic novel told a sprawling and densely-layered story, whereas the film itself takes the shape of a more classic whodunnit. Needless to say, the author was not pleased.
As the film opens, the year is 1888 and London is changing as the twentieth century approaches. When a gruesome series of murders occur in the slums of Whitechapel, Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp) and Sergeant Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane) race to solve the case. The killer (dubbed "Jack the Ripper" by the locals) is methodically killing prostitutes and covering up an even more sinister mystery. With the help of gold-hearted hooker Mary Kelley (Heather Graham) and kindly physician Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), Abberline and Godley stumble onto a frightening conspiracy that foreshadows the darkness of the coming century.
Don’t be fooled -- 'From Hell' isn’t a straight forward period piece. In fact, as directed by the Hughes Brothers ('Menace II Society,' 'Dead Presidents'), the film has a distinctly modern flavor that's fueled by character eccentricities, shocking behavior and gore. Although viewers expecting an accurate look at 19th century London will be sorely disappointed, on the level of a pulp entertainment, for the most part the film works.
There’s certainly no denying that 'From Hell' is a visual powerhouse. The film's stark cinematography is reminiscent of a gallery of paintings, with oppressive primary-drenched shots used to heighten the emotional resonance of each scene. The directors bring a slick style to the screen and manage to even make dry conversations feel intense or off kilter. They don't rely on disgusting imagery per se; instead, they rely on viewer reaction to colors, shadows, and slight CG enhancements (for instance, Jack the Ripper's black eyes).
More importantly, the performances are spot-on. The supporting cast is given free reign to push their characters to the edge and –- for once -- it works. Depp and Coltrane dwell at the opposite extreme, providing stability to the otherwise unhinged plot. As usual, Depp steals the show, delivering a complex character that's endearing and repulsive at the same time. Ian Holm is also magnificent and holds the entire story together with his soft demeanor and father-like relationship with Abberline. He's the compassionate center of an overwhelmingly cynical film.
As much as I personally dig the film, there’s no denying that 'From Hell' has more red herrings than most other mysteries I’ve seen. There are dozens of characters sprinkled throughout the story who brandish an assortment of blades and knives. While I appreciate how tirelessly the Hughes Brothers work at hiding the actual identity of Jack the Ripper until the end, it begins to feel as if everyone in Whitechapel is one step away from being a serial killer.
Although 'From Hell' borders on being a film that values style over substance, I’ve always had a great time being dragged along for the ride. Despite what Alan Moore may think of the end result, this sick flick's visual aesthetic, performances, and confidence had me sold from beginning to end.
After a seemingly endless delay, the Blu-ray edition of 'From Hell' arrives with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that doesn't disappoint. The color palette is bold and stable, contrast is nicely balanced, and black levels are deep and inky. I was pleased to see that the strong greens and flushed reds that dominate the screen don’t bleed or smear, and that fleshtones remain naturally warm throughout. For such a dark film, I was also impressed by this transfer’s lack of artifacting and artifical source noise. The only thing I noted was some grain spiking in darker shots (a product of different types of film stock).
Fine detail is excellent considering the picture's natural, filmic veneer and gives the image a convincing level of dimension. The textures of cobblestones in the streets of Whitechapel, flecks of blood, and wisps of smoke and fog are rendered perfectly without any pixelation. Likewise, I didn't catch instances of the glaring edge enhancement that plagued the film's earlier releases on DVD -- a slight amount remains in a few scattered shots, but ringing issues have been largely eliminated.
The only problem I have is more stylistic than it is technical -- while arguably bolstering the tone of the film, the black levels are severely crushed at times. I normally wouldn't penalize a transfer for something like this, but some of the background details that are clearly visible on the standard DVD are obscured in this Blu-ray presentation. Even so, this is an impressive transfer that I imagine many fans will be excited to finally see.
Like the video transfer, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio track on this Blu-ray edition of 'From Hell’ means business.
The mix itself is surprisingly aggressive, packing a significant low-end presence into the chaos of chases and the hushed doom of ambient scenes. The track's fidelity and dynamics are particularly impressive, showcasing earthy bass rumbles and clean dialogue. The atmospheric music has a welcome resonance, gleefully playing with the LFE channel on more than one occasion. I was also pleased to find that the rear speakers had plenty to do, replicating the busy streets of London with convincing acoustics.
Quick pans and honed accuracy enhance the track to a point where I found myself tracking sounds as they swooshed across the soundscape. As great as this track is, I did spot one small issue. Like a lot of modern films, the sound design regularly increases the volume of an effect and distributes it to every channel. While this boosts the impact of a scare, it also feels stagey and unnecessarily manipulative.
Fans will be ecstatic to hear the audible upgrade 'From Hell' receives with this Blu-ray release. Methodically loud, this track heightens the tension of the film and is sure to impress your friends.
This Blu-ray edition of 'From Hell' ports over all of the supplemental content from the single-disc standard DVD released in 2002. Not included are any of the additional extras from the 2-disc Special Edition DVD (including an intriguing Jack the Ripper documentary and a half dozen behind-the-scenes featurettes).
First up is a excellent commentary track with directors Albert and Allen Hughes, actor Robbie Coltrane, screenwriter Rafael Yglesias, and cinematographer Peter Deming. Interestingly, the group spends less time discussing the specifics of each scene, and instead focuses on the story, the characters and the development of the script. The Hughes Brothers rant at length about the "evils" of the studio system, and explain the reasoning behind changes made to Alan Moore's original work. The entire group even takes time to have an in-depth talk about the subtext of the film and its multiple interpretations. Fans won’t want to miss this one.
Less exciting is a collection of about 20 Deleted Scenes (20 minutes altogether). While there are a few interesting character beats, I imagine these scenes would've slowed the pace of the film to a crawl. Fans of the graphic novel will be happy to see the return of some minor moments, but others will likely shrug their shoulders.
Rounding things out is an Alternate Ending that was wisely cut, and the film’s theatrical trailer.
'From Hell' is a flashy period piece that oozes with style and testosterone. The same can be said about this new Blu-ray release, which features a one-two punch of a stunning video transfer and a powerful DTS-HD MA mix. The one disappointment is the absence of several supplements from the 2-disc Special Edition DVD, but overall this one’s still a top-notch effort from Fox that’s sure to leave fans smiling.