From Hell

From Hell (2001)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane
Extras: Commentary Track, Deleted Scenes, Featurettes, Interactive Featurette, Trailer

It has been some time since a film about the infamous "Jack The Ripper" has been released and since the topic is always good for some spine-tingling on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense, "From Hell" was a release I was thoroughly looking forward to. As expected, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has given the film a fine treatment, releasing it as a 2-disc DVD set with a slew of bonus materials.

The Whitechapel district of London in the late 1800s was the playground for the lowlife of London’s society during the Victorian era. It was a poor neighborhood, the home of hard labor workers and whores. It was also the district in which Jack The Ripper sought out his victims for his infamous killings. After a few street whores are found horribly – but very precisely – mutilated, the police is certain that they are all the victim of one man. The press is quick to give him the sensational nickname "Jack The Ripper." Inspector Abberline is put on the case to put an end to these murders that sent waves of fear and horror through the streets of London. As it turns out, this is not an easy task and again and again, the Ripper strikes despite Abberline’s best efforts.

"From Hell" is a very good film and a very entertaining and enjoyable one, though not the film I had hoped for and somewhat presumptuously expected. Instead of delivering the story of Jack The Ripper in a suspenseful fashion that would put the investigation at the center of its story, "From Hell" instead opts to make it a character-drama where we get to witness Abberline’s torment and inner turmoil as he goes through the investigation. Important elements of the actual investigation fall to the side and make room for personal relationships et al. It gets to the point that we hardly care for the murders, or the victims for that matter. They become undramatic events while – from my point of view – they should have been the dramatic syncopations of the horror and fear they caused. A lot has also been said about the gore factor of "From Hell" but I found the film very restrained in its graphic display. While it is obvious that the settings are extremely gory, the camera never gives us a clear look at details, making the murders gruesome in a more psychological way as our imagination is allowed to fill in those horrible details.

Dialogues are an interesting aspect of "From Hell." Taking place in London, you do expect a few English accents, which the actors pull off admirably well with natural inflections. However, given the fact that the story takes place in Whitechapel with the majority of players hailing from the lowest rung of the social ladder in what has been one of the world’s most brutal and depraved cities at the time, the speech and accents are too clean-cut and the Cockney slang that would have prevailed there is missing from the film giving it a bit of a superficial edge.

The story also takes some liberties with history. Abberline’s character for example is an amalgam of the real Inspector Abberline and a man called Robert James Lees. Lees was a medium who was brought in on the investigation after he claimed he could actually see the murders in his mind before they happened. In "From Hell" the characters are combined and the visions are now a result of Abberline’s Opium-induced dreams. Another character who fell by the wayside is the actor Richard Mansfield who became a main suspect during the original investigation as a result of his shocking performance as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the Lyceum Theater. There are more elements that are missing from this version of the Jack The Ripper mystery and by no means should it be seen as historically accurate in any way.

"From Hell" is coming to DVD in a beautiful <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer on this DVD in its original theatrical 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio. The transfer is absolutely clean and free of defects or mars and the image reveals in incredible amount of definition. Colors are marvelously rendered, bringing out every little nuance of the film’s atmospheric cinematography. Never oversaturated, colors are vibrant and strong at all times and finely delineated. The black level of the transfer is equally impressive, which his important for a film as dark as "From Hell." The shadows, the blackness and void, the obscured framing of certain shots is perfectly reproduced without any problems at all. No edge-enhancement has been applied and the transfer is free of any distracting ringing artifacts. Compression of the video material has been treated just as well and the transfer is virtually free of compression artifacts of any sort, making "From Hell" a pristine presentation.

The audio tracks supplied on this release fare no less impressive. The DVD contains a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track, a 5.1 <$DTS,DTS> track, as well as <$DS,Dolby Surround> tracks in French and Spanish. Since this is a new production, all tracks are equally well produced and create superior aural experiences. The DTS track is slightly more dynamic than the Dolby Digital track and features a stronger bass extension, which can actually be a bit overpowering at times. Other than that the tracks are mostly equal with very a good surround integration that creates an eerie ambiance that engulfs the viewer at times, or a barrage of noises and effects from all directions at others. At any time it is a very modern and aggressive mix that makes full use of multi-channel capabilities. Dialogues are well-integrated and hardly ever drowned out.

The DVD also contains a <$commentary,commentary track> featuring the directors Albert and Allen Hughes along with screenwriter Rafael Yglesias, cinematographer Peter Deming and actor Robbie Coltrane. I was pleasantly surprise to find this track on the release as the Hughes brothers had stated before that they would not record a commentary for the film until they do have some proper distance from the material – a statement I found very mature and desirable. I would not want to complain about this <$commentary,commentary track> though, although it shows a notable lack of distance and comments are still tainted from the actual work on the production. Nonetheless it is full of information and offers plenty of technical information about history, the production from various ends, such as the screenplay, character development and, of course, the film’s wonderful imagery.

The DVD also features 20 deleted scenes from the film, as well as an alternative ending for the movie. Some of the scenes deservedly hit the cutting room floor but there are a few gems among them, too. Most interestingly the alternate ending offers an interesting take on the film’s ending that would have worked equally well, I think. All in all, very good stuff and a treasure chest to dive into.

The second disc of the set contains another plethora of extras. "A View From Hell" is a promotional HBO featurette. The featurette takes a look at the production of the film with some backstage footage while host Heather Graham tries to give the promo piece some credibility. Cast and filmmakers elaborate on the film and the Jack the Ripper myth, while some historians also shed some light on the real events. It is an entertaining, though fairly shallow, piece that was evidently designed to drive audiences into movie theaters.

Much better is "Jack The Ripper: 6 Degrees of Separation." It is a featurette that is presented in an "infinifilm"-style manner. At certain points in the featurette a magnifying glass appears that gives you the chance to access additional material that is relevant for what is currently covered. As a whole the featurette offers a wealth of additional information ranging from historic to purely entertaining, making it a well-rounded addition to the DVD.

The disc also contains a Production Design featurette that takes a look at the locations that were used during the shooting of the film. It takes us to some of the real locations that were used, as well as on the set where production designer Martin Childs rebuilt the Victorian Whitechapel district. Having seen the result of the work in the final film, it is fascinating to see how it was all put together and how realistic it ultimately all turned out.

Next stop, a "Tour of the Murder Sites." It has a fascinating twist because unlike what you may expect, this is not a modern day tour through London’s streets. Instead the directors take you on a daylight tour through their Whitechapel set to show off all the key locations where the murders have happened.

The DVD also offers a look at the graphic novel on which the movie is based on and gives us information how it has been adapted to the movie. It is an interesting featurette with some good information about the process of making movies, selling them to studios and working with existing intellectual properties.

"Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder" is a featurette that takes a look at Absinthe, the drug that Johnny Depp’s character is using among others, which help induce his visions. To round out the release, the disc also contains a the trailer for the movie, as well as a bonus trailer of "Unfaithful."

Before closing I have to say that the disc’s menu are a bit straining. With erratic jumps and cuts, they make it almost impossible to watch them for any length of time. Something a little less erratic would certainly have served the DVD better.

Covering "Jack The Ripper" in any way or form is always a difficult undertaking. As everyone knows the case has never been solved and the Ripper has never been found. All we have are speculations and pieces of evidence that point to certain people – but no proof. It is also unknown how many victims Jack the Ripper actually produced. While he has been credited with certain murders, there may have been even more which have been overlooked by the police, or potentially less. Ripperologists and historians are still up in arms about the details but it should not distract you from enjoying this film, inaccurate as it may or may not be. "From Hell" was designed to be a movie, a piece of entertainment, not a historic doctrine. As such it succeeds and uses an infamous background setting to tell an intriguing story. As I said earlier, "From Hell" may not bee the movie I was hoping for but it convinced me nonetheless based on its many other merits. It is incredibly well crafted, atmospheric and extremely stylish and very entertaining. The DVD adds to it with is wealth of extras, and everyone interested in the subject or a good creepy movie, should give "From Hell" a try.