Jack the Ripper’s note reads: “One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the 20th century.” In From Hell (adapted from Alan Moore’s 1999 graphic novel of the same name), Inspector Fed Abberline (Johnny Depp) falls into an opium dreamstate just as the Ripper begins his legendary one-week attack on London’s loveable prostitutes. The Queen’s son is struck with syphilis and the cultish Order of Freemasons continues to conduct business as usual. The unsavory group of medical/political pontificators becomes implicated in a Crown conspiracy that directly links the monarchy to the Ripper murders; still, there is only a vague notion that the death of the film’s females might be part of a social-cleansing edict commanded by the Queen. The Hughes Brothers carefully hide the identity of their Ripper, and as such From Hell becomes little more than a gothic-style serial killer melodrama with JFK-paranoia on the mind. Still, their London is a delirious embodiment of a raging inferno and the film’s many on-screen deaths are remarkable to behold. The camera zooms into a gramophone just as the film begins to resemble an opium confession. The compositions are startlingly symmetrical. The throats of film’s prostitutes are cut with expert precision and objects begin to take on a fairy-tale quality of their own—coins cover the eyes of the dead ensure the soul’s safe passage into heaven just as the Ripper’s grapes-as-prostitute-bait seamlessly blend into the flowery patterns of his victims’ clothing. The bloody London skyscapes are distressing, the deaths almost painterly. Ripper’s crimes and Abberline’s opium “trips” become jittery reactions to an unenlightened time (the elephant man was entertainment and lobotomies were a cause célèbre). The Ripper’s madness is an obvious one though surreally executed through evocative superimpositions. Most spectacularly, Abberline’s final opium-induced fantasy of Mary Kelley (Heather Graham) becomes a giddy evocation of a freer time.
Arguably the best-looking film of last year, From Hell’s 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen is exquisitely preserved on this director’s limited edition two-disc set. More shocking than the film’s brutal murders is cinematographer Peter Deming’s sudden bursts of color. Shadow detail is impeccable, the blacks rock-solid and colors richly saturated. The film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 track is about as robust as the optional DTS 5.1 track, though the Ripper’s blade sounds a tad more gruesome on the former.
Included on the first disc is a composite commentary track by Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes, screenwriter Rafael Yglesias, cinematographer Peter Deming, and actor Robbie Coltrane. The Hughes Brothers readily admit that they’re not fond of commentary tracks, thus their presence here is less than engaging. What with all the dead air and the necessary introductions that help distinguish between the voices of the five men, one can tell that Fox struggled to put this track together. Nonetheless, Yglesias’s presence is priceless. He ruminates on his desire to write the film from a woman’s point of view, his careful use of red herrings and the fascinating legal problems the Hughes Brothers ran into. Apparently one can own a fact in England which means the brothers could not show the Ripper killing his victims with a hypodermic needle (instead, a deadly drink was used). Also included on the first disc are more than 20 deleted scenes, including an alternate ending. For the most part, the Hughes Brothers knew what they were doing: most of the scenes left on the cutting room floor are either vague or downright misleading. Netley’s masturbation scene is the most memorable of all these deleted scenes. Albert Hughes acknowledges that it was removed because test audiences just didn’t "get" that the brothers were actively denying Netley an orgasm for the duration of the film. Character depth was certainly sacrificed when Albert decided to cater to the whims of his audience. Curiously, the film’s alternate ending suggests that while both Albert and Allen are fond of female booty, only one was smart enough to not let female buttocks get in the way of the film’s artistic integrity.
The features on the second disc might as well begin and end with the outstanding "Jack the Ripper: 6 Degrees of Separation." Narrated by British crime historians Stuart P. Evans and Donald Rumbelow, this engaging feature is tailor-made for Ripperologists obsessed with the gruesome details of the Ripper’s crimes and the many suspects questioned in the case. By activating a magnifying glass that appears on screen, the viewer is given a more detailed look into the lives of the Ripper’s victims via an old-school British documentary on the subject; authentic pictures from the crime scenes are liberally featured throughout. Also discussed is how writer Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) was thought to be the Ripper at one point during the investigation. A serviceable production design featurette describes how the film’s turn-of-the-century London was created in Prague. More memorable is the graphic novel-to-film comparison and a featurette titled "Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder." Barnaby Conrad (writer of Absinthe, History in a Bottle) and other absinthe aficionados discuss their love of the drug and how it came to be outlawed in the U.S., Switzerland and France after a man killed his wife and child after a heavy night of drinking. Incidentally, absinthe is only legal in three countries: Spain, England and Czechoslovakia. Also included here is a relatively banal tour of the murder sites (more like the recreations of the murder sites) by the Hughes Brothers, a stylish HBO making-of featurette hosted by Heather Graham and original theatrical trailers for the film and Fox’s Unfaithful.
Fox gives their box-office lightweight From Hell a heavyweight DVD treatment. From the killer interactive menus to the gruesome, richly informative featurettes, this is one of the more stylish DVDs of the year.