Whitechapel, 1888. Inspector Abberline investigates the Jack the Ripper case, detecting a vast conspiracy behind the murders. As the bodies pile up, he grows closer to Mary Kelly, a prostitute who seems fated to be the Ripper's final victim.
Adapting the panoramic Alan Moore-Eddy Campbell comic, the Hughes Brothers present a far-fetched 'solution' to the Jack the Ripper case that allows a dissection of the corruption behind the phrase, 'Victorian values'.
The film's cavernous Whitechapel is a teeming, threatening environment even before the Ripper begins systematic elimination of the canonical victims, with cringing whores - played at full throttle by the likes of Katrin Cartlidge and Susan Lynch - in as much danger from bullyboy gangstas as an imported toff psychopath.
Because the story is oft-told (nearly qualifying the film as a remake of 1978's Murder By Decree), From Hell runs the risk of following an elaborate set-up with a blown punchline, and the script can't quite sell its Jack as at once a purposeful assassin and a mad killer.
However, it's always fun to see Masonic conspiracies exposed, and a range of squirmingly superior British acting talent (Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Paul Rhys) perfectly embodies double-dyed arrogance and sadistic delight in extreme surgery. Ruled over by a 'cold-eyed' queen, this world sees the poor only as specimens, its attitudes symptomised not only by eviscerated drabs but an exhibited Elephant Man and lobotomies performed as theatre.
The murders take place behind the Ripper's Dracula cloak, with telling, hallucinatory, gruesome details (a torn-out heart boiled in a kettle). Cinematographer Peter Deming (the master of unease who shot Mulholland Dr.) has his camera prowl gloomy alleys as sinister carriages pass and red blood seems splashed over painted London skies. Depp and Graham have peculiar characterisations (visionary junkie cop, feminist trollop), but opening and closing with its copper in an opium den allows for a reading of the film as a delirious nightmare distantly based on historical fact.
With the look of Hammer films and the structure of JFK, UK viewers might find the leads' accents hard to place, but this is blood-and-thunder melodrama - we're supposed to be terrified, not convinced. A rare, clever, horror film.