Sunday, March 22, 2009

FROM HELL - Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 2001) Fox Home Video

Inspired by the Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell graphic novel about Jack the Ripper, directors Albert and Allen Hughes’ From Hell (2001) is a harrowing, bloodthirsty journey into the heart of a madman, akin in spectacle and thrills to having the unnerving experience of careening through the darkened recesses of an amusement park funhouse.

Stylishly executed and with a great sense of cinematic space provided by Peter Deming’s lush cinematography, the film grips its audience almost from the beginning, thanks to a very clever screenplay by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesius. No one knows for sure who the Ripper was, but the screenplay does an intriguing job of weaving all sorts of plausible suspects, finally settling on a conspiracy between Scotland Yard and Queen Victoria.

Our story opens with a troop of ‘unfortunates’ working the sex trade in the seedy White Chapel district. Although embittered, Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) encourages her fellow prostitutes to stick together and resist becoming pawns of the ruthless Nichols boys – a pair of pimps.

One of the prostitutes, Ann Crook (Joanna Page) seems to have already escaped this threat by marrying Albert Sickert (Mark Dexter); the lover she believes is a successful businessman. Having placed their young daughter in the care of Mary Kelly for the afternoon, Ann goes off for a romantic rendezvous with her husband. What she cannot know is that Albert is really Queen Victoria’s nephew – Prince Albert, who has been stricken with incurable syphilis.

Victoria’s (Liz Moscrop) Scotland Yard spy, Ben Kidney (Terence Harvey) learns of Ann and Albert’s rendezvous and seizes them in the act of love making. Kidney packs Albert off to the palace and exiles Ann to a mental institution where she is lobotomized to procure her continued silence. Meanwhile, the Ripper begins to work his carnage on the streets of White Chapel, slowly eradicating all of Ann Crook’s friends.

Enter Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp); a brilliant detective who experiences moments of clairvoyance while attempting to blot out his own inner demons by taking opium. Abberline and Mary Kelly form a bond, she providing him with pieces to the puzzle that don’t quite fit, even as nightly more and more of her working girl friends die gruesomely at the hands of the Ripper.

Taking a clue that the Ripper is a man of surgical expertise, Abberline engages Sir William Gull (Ian Holm); physician to the Royal family for a little expert advice. Through Gull, Abberline discovers the secret society of the Masons and begins to suspect that one of their own, Dr. Ferrel (Paul Rhys) may be the Ripper. Abberline baits Ferrel. He also sends Mary Kelly and Ann Crook’s baby away to the relative safety of the country. Unfortunately, Abberline has critiqued the situation badly. It is Gull, not Ferrel who is responsible for the killings.

From Hell is gripping entertainment from start to finish – haunted by that specter of genuine evil and fleshed out with stellar performances from all its principle cast. Johnny Depp, one of the finest chameleons of his or any other generation, assimilates into the role of this brilliantly flawed detective, so tormented by visions that they eventually drive him to the brink of self destruction.

Heather Graham is remarkable as the careworn, weather beaten prostitute whose faith in humanity is restored by her flawed romantic association with Abberline. Trevor Jones’ musical score provides the finishing touches on this period drama/thriller, elevating the sheer terror of the exercise with a paralyzing grace. In the final analysis, From Hell is grand, nail-biting entertainment!

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray release is disappointing. First, the good news: great care has been taken to preserve the visual styling of the film. Despite being a single layer disc, From Hell on Blu-ray looks marvelous. Colors are rich, fully saturated and vibrant. Contrast levels are bang on. Good solid grain and fine details are faithfully reproduced throughout for a thoroughly beguiling video presentation from start to finish. Truly, this is a reference quality transfer with absolutely nothing to complain about. The audio is represented as 5.1 DTS lossless audio and is as powerful and representative of the original theatrical presentation as the visuals.

Now for the bad news: Fox continues to neglect the special features on its Blu-Ray releases – extras that have been made available forever on their DVDs are absent on this Blu-ray. On the Blu-Ray we get the previously available audio commentary, alternate ending and 20 deleted scenes – none presented in anything but 480i. We also get the film’s original theatrical trailer.

What we're missing from the Blu-Ray is the brilliant picture in picture ‘explore the feature’ commentary from the standard DVD that basically gave the viewer an inside comparison between the graphic novel, real history and the film. Also absent is the spectacular BBC documentary on the real Jack the Ripper that was also a supplement on Fox’s Collector’s Edition. For shame!

Why Fox continues to reduce its special features on Blu-ray is beyond the scope of understanding of this critic. Suffice it to say, if the studio is planning to re-release the same titles currently available on Blu-Ray in the next few years with all of those extras we already own elsewhere, this is one collector who will not be running out to buy yet another copy of any film he already currently owns!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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