From Hell (18)

Review by Simon Bell

A SCOTLAND Yard detective tracks the world's most celebrated and methodical serial killer Jack the Ripper and soon begins to suspect a conspiracy as murky as the pea-souper that envelops the gas-lit, cobblestoned backstreets of the Victorian East End.

That's the ostensible focus for this old-fashioned and very bloody take on the myth from directors Albert and Allen Hughes, 29-year-old Armenian-American twins from Detroit.

The fact that the brothers previously unleashed Menace II Society (1993) and Dead Presidents (1995) on an unsuspecting movie-going world, you know that this is going to be no stagey Merchant Ivory passion-in-the-parlour affair. And indeed it isn't.

In the squalid red-light district of Whitechapel circa 1888, a mysterious white-gloved, top-hatted madman tempts the streetwalkers with grapes, before delving into his surgeon's box and ritualistically taking their body parts for souvenirs.

Up steps our absinthe-soaked, clairvoyant bobby, Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp) who reckons he knows who is at the centre of this gory artistry.

The Hughes twins took to their source material - the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell - with vigour, hoping as they did to be taken seriously as film-makers rather than black film-makers. They, and Depp, wanted this to be "the ultimate Ripper movie". And it just might be. To Americans.

Depp's convincing enough (is he ever not?) and he certainly did his homework: It's reported he was so fascinated by the legend he read all the material he could lay his hands on, turning himself in the meantime into a mini-Ripperologist.

Had Daniel Day Lewis or Anthony Hopkins accepted the offer to play the opium-addicted detective, we would have been subjected to more ham than hangs off a Vietnamese pot-bellied. But at least we'd have been spared Dick van Dyke goes "Essex Boys".

Meanwhile, studio pressure forced the directors to abandon their search for an unknown English starlet, settling instead for Heather Graham as the infamously segmented prostitute Mary Kelly. But Graham, too, seems embarrassed by her own attempts at Cock-er-nee diction, surrounded as she is by fellow ladies of the night Lesley Sharp, Susan Lynch and Katrin Cartlidge.

The Whitechapel locale, conjured on a set in Prague, is credible. It's harmonized too with some breathtaking cinematography. But where this film promises to really shock, it instead rests on the tired old tale of Freemason skulduggery and Royal cover-up.

Nevertheless, its poor US box office won't hurt this literate but violent, time-honoured horror pic.