From Hell

Nowadays, we take for granted that serial killers are often intelligent, well-educated men. Not so in 1888, when Jack the Ripper terrorized London. The notion that he might be a surgeon or professor was preposterous; educated men didn’t DO things like that.

I have just spelled out the most interesting idea in “From Hell,” the new Hughes Brothers examination of the Jack the Ripper case: The fact that the investigation was hampered by authorities refusing to believe the killer wasn’t a butcher or blacksmith.

(You might be tempted to think the film’s most interesting idea is the one where the lead investigator is psychic, but you’d be wrong. That’s a cop-out, because it excuses the guy from doing real police work. He just has to sit around smoking opium until a revelation comes.)

Anyway, the movie, all dark and icky, brings up the interesting idea for a minute and then leaves it alone. It focuses its energy instead on being as filthy and wretched as London was in those days, with prostitutes having sex openly in the streets and people drinking to the point of unconsciousness on a regular basis. I’m surprised a guy walking around slashing throats was even considered out of place.

The able and talented Johnny Depp plays Fred Abberline, the detective assigned to the case. His psychic powers are well-known, which is why supervisor Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), a rotund, Shakespeare-quoting fellow, chooses him for it.

The victims are prostitutes, who are in a plight already because they owe money to someone named McQueen and his band of bad guys. The leader of the whores is Mary Kelly, played by Heather Graham in what is supposed to be an Irish accent but instead sounds like Heather Graham trying to do an English accent but not trying very hard. One by one the ladies are picked off by the Ripper, who removes organs from them with precise skill.

It’s clear we’re supposed to try to guess who the killer is, because whenever we see him, the Hugheses make an obvious effort not to show his face. Which is why I was so disappointed to have guessed his identity so early on. Oh, well. Maybe I see too many movies.

I definitely see too many movies like this one: great costumes and set designs, solid acting (including Ian Holm as a helpful royal physician), a tense moment or two, and then it all adds up to nothing. The first two-thirds are fairly entertaining (in a macabre, gruesome kind of way) but only because we expect there to be a payoff. When it doesn’t come, we wonder what the point was. Why did we watch this? Even if the announcement of the Ripper’s identity is a surprise to you, I suspect you’ll find the whole thing unsatisfying and the ending unnecessarily grim.

C (; R, some harsh profanity, some nudity, some.)