Sneak Preview: “From Hell” Excells at subtle terror

BY KEN WALCZAK

Johnny Depp is the finest actor of his generation, if not the finest actor working today. His performance in the Hughes Brothers thriller “From Hell” allows him to reclaim effortlessly this title, overshadowing more questionable recent career choices and inviting comparison to another bright-eyed master of understatement, whose last great role was alongside Depp in 1995’s Dead Man.

Like Robert Mitchum, Depp consistently delivers laconic, almost detached performances that live and die by the nuance. His characters take shape through the almost imperceptible lifting of an eyebrow, the careful directing of a gaze or glance. Like Mitchum, Depp is capable of conveying desire, enthusiasm, even fevered anguish when such emotions are demanded of him — yet he never loses the aura of unflappable cool that defines his movie-star persona. Because he is prolific — appearing in seven films in the past two years alone — his less memorable roles are easily forgiven as detours along a carefully plotted route toward the creation of a true Platonic form, the Depp Character.

That being said, it is clear that this stop will be a little different for Johnny. Sure, he again plays a detective. But the Hughes Brothers bring a resume vastly different than that of Roman Polanski or Tim Burton. Their CV, which features “Dead Presidents” and “American Pimp,” bears witness to the visceral appeal of the style they bring to the screen. Their telling of the Jack the Ripper story is scary, in a way few contemporary movies manage. It pulls out all the proverbial stops, using the sound of an unsheathing sword to accompany Jack’s descent from his black carriage, and revealing clues to the mystery through Depp’s hallucinations, conveyed via an opiated cinematic haze.

Perhaps the Hughes’ greatest achievement, however, comes in their superb strategy for depicting the killings. The Ripper, after all, mutilated his victims in truly repugnant fashion; the easy way out here would have been merely to stun the audience into submission with set pieces out of a surgical instruction film gone horribly awry, or to crib Argento’s Suspiria technique, and display the eviscerations from the inside out. Instead, Jack emerges as a figure couched in perpetual shadow, and his first killings are masterfully efficient and stylized. And though the gore quotient increases somewhat by the end of the film, one cannot help but feel much more is left to the imagination than splayed across the screen. This is a terribly good idea. Not only does the film avoided the potential to look dated in a near future of superior gore-effects, but it also evokes the subtle psychological terror pioneered by the first (now classic) examples of the nascent American genre.

Yet “From Hell” would remain nothing more than an average comic-book-turned-inferior-movie, were it not for the substantial talents of Peter Deming. Deming was last nominated for an award in 1990 — for “House Party,” no less — but he is due for one this year. His work on the Ripper Story is a close cousin to his grimy shadowplay in the phenomenal “Mulholland Drive,” and it is immensely effective. Deming’s London is a seamy, festering place of perpetually crimson skies. Chiaroscuro doesn’t even begin to describe it. The stench emanating from the Londoners he films is almost palpable; the audience cringes not only in anticipation of Jack’s next ghastly deed, but also at the foul sneers of the hookers who constitute the film’s protagonists (“I could suck the Thames dry …”). Brilliant work.

In fact, there are but two small caveats I would add to my glowing praise of “From Hell.” First, be careful where and when you see the film. Pick the wrong theatre, and you may well be subjected to the sneers of elitist comic-book dorks, moaning that the movie did not succeed in reproducing its source material 100 percent faithfully. Second, know your history. The film and comic both rely heavily on the Royal Conspiracy theory of Ripperology, a hypothesis about the killings that appears to be hackneyed and confused Hollywood plotting, until you understand its substantial support in the historical evidence. I personally enjoyed the plot considerably more after consulting www.casebook.org, an exhaustive Web resource on the topic. Come for quality information, stay for a good laugh — particularly in the authors’ vehement dissection of claims that Lewis Carroll was the killer.

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