alan moore and eddie campbell's From Hell is a monumental comic book, more than 500 pages of graphic murder mystery based on Jack the Ripper. The graphic novel (a nifty piece of status phrasing, rather like calling everyone with a byline and a thumb a film critic) is a puzzlesome form, used for everything from excruciatingly explicit porno fantasy to serious examinations of the Holocaust.
A cross between the novel and the movie story board, it thrives in cultural cracks, and mainstream audiences are more likely to be unwittingly conscious of its influence than cognizant of its existence. Those who noted the influence on The Matrix of Hong Kong martial arts films and Japanese anime tended to ignore the extraordinary influence of comic book art on the film. The shootout in the lobby is edited in a way that very precisely resembles comic book framing; and notice the remarkable attention paid to the glint of light off a lens or the sound of spent shell casings pinging off the floor.
It's surprising that more American filmmakers haven't picked up on the form. After all, these works can be seen as scripts with a visual plan already in place. Even more surprising is the fact that this adaptation is by the Hughes brothers, best known until now for Menace II Society and the blaxploitation homage Dead Presidents.
Yet here they are, off to Prague to film the most English of all murder mysteries, with a pair of name stars -- Johnny Depp as the drug-addicted and possibly psychic detective assigned to track the Ripper, and Heather Graham as Mary Kelly, Whitechapel whore and eventual target.
It's a tremendously stylish film. There are deliberate nods to the source in the red-tinged visuals -- you've never seen skies like these in real life -- and lively performances by a supporting cast of veteran English actors including Robbie Coltrane, Ian Richardson and Katrin Cartlidge. For those keeping score, From Hell's solution belongs in the Masonic conspiracy/royal bastard school.
There are already a few dozen movies touching on Jack the Ripper, ranging from Hitchcock's 1926 silent, The Lodger, and not one but two Sherlock Holmes vs. the Ripper movies (A Study In Terror and Murder By Decree) to such oddities as The Ruling Class, in which Peter O'Toole imagines himself Jack the Ripper.
From Hell is one of the more honourable entries in the list. Now, when are the Hugheses going to adapt Moore's superhero epic, The Watchmen?
FROM HELL directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, written by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias from the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, produced by Jane Hamsher, Kevin Messick and Don Murphy, with Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm and Robbie Coltrane. 121 minutes. A 20th Century Fox release. Opens Friday (October 19). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 118. Rating: NNNN