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'From Hell' is one heck of a mess

FROM HELL —* 1/2 — Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, Susan Lynch, Jason Flemyng, Lesley Sharp, Terence Harvey; rated R (violence, gore, drug use, profanity, sex, vulgarity, brief nudity, ethnic slurs); see the "On the Screen" column on for complete listing of local theaters.

It took a lot of hands to butcher the acclaimed graphic novel "From Hell," which must have seemed perfect for big-screen treatment.

You can start with a pair of veteran screenwriters, Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, who turned a gripping Jack the Ripper tale, told from the perspective of the killer, into a rather pedestrian mystery that is resolved in one of the least plausible and most confusing ways in recent movie history.

Add to that a pair of filmmakers, the Hughes brothers ("Menace II Society," "Dead Presidents"), who are out of their element with this period thriller. Their attempts to portray Victorian England as grimy and gritty are far from successful, and the story becomes increasingly over the top as the action gets more and more blood-soaked.

And frankly, the film's final third isn't scary or horrifying. Instead, it's so ludicrous that it's almost laughable, a term that could also be used to describe the film's serious miscasting of its lead roles.

One of the worst of these is having quirky character-actor Johnny Depp play Fred Abberline, the real-life Scotland Yard detective who investigated the Jack the Ripper slayings. Here he's portrayed as a drug-addled widower who's handed a real hot-potato puzzler.

At first, it appears to be a clear-cut case of a gang of enforcers exacting their revenge on "unfortunates," prostitutes unable or unwilling to pay for their brand of "protection." But there's also evidence that suggests trained hands and surgical implements may have been used in the killings.

So despite pressure from higher-ups, Abberline becomes convinced that the killer may be upper-crust, and he seeks out help from one of the intended victims (Heather Graham), as well as a surgeon (Ian Holm) with royal connections.

Screenwriters Hayes and Yglesias have changed several characters and combined others (Depp's Abberline is combined with that of a clairvoyant). And their contrived romance between Depp and Graham (who appears to be playing south London's most glamorous prostitute) is cliché movie-writing at its worst.

Of course, a better actress might have been able to do something with the role, but Graham is so busy trying on accents (which range from quasi-Irish to cockney English to no discernible accent whatsoever) that she can't be bothered to reach for chemistry with her co-star.

As for Depp, he's saddled with an accent that makes his Abberline sound more ignorant than he should. (Even Robbie Coltrane, playing Abberline's somewhat clueless partner, sounds more intelligent than he does.) And what is the always reliable Ian Holm doing in this, except collecting a paycheck?

"From Hell" is rated R for graphic violence (throat-slashings, stabbings, disembowelings), graphic gore, simulated drug use (opium), scattered use of strong and anachronistic profanity, graphic simulated sex acts, use of crude sexual slang terms and ethnic slurs, and brief full female nudity. Running time: 125 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com