It comes as no surprise that moviegoers these days are desperate for escapism. If that mood holds, From Hell, opening this week, may be just what the doctor ordered. Especially if the doctor's name is Jekyll or Moreau. From Hell is Hollywood's latest search for Jack the Ripper. It stars Johnny Depp as an opium-addicted Victorian cop and Heather Graham as one of the prostitutes stalked by the madman in London's low-rent Whitechapel district in 1888. It's a shocking movie, to be sure, but this is its most unexpected twist: it is directed by the Hughes brothers, twins Allen and Albert, 29, who are best known, at least have been until now, for their violent urban dramas set in modern-day Los Angeles. While From Hell divided the critics at last month's Toronto Film Festival, its highly stylized canvas of red skies, unrequited romance and violent, visionary opium dreams are an undeniably ambitious step forward for the Hughes brothers.
But some things never change. Again the brothers found themselves at odds with the ratings board. They had to trim one of From Hell's throat slashings in order to avoid an NC-17. They also softened, by choice, the sound effects for a scene in which the killer disembowels a woman with surgical instruments. "Every time I heard that, it bothered me," says Allen. "It sounded like a knife on the bone against the meat. It disturbed a lot of people."
The Hughes brothers, in fact, have been disturbing audiences since 1993. That was when--after dropping out of high school in Pomona, Calif., and learning their craft on music videos--they grabbed Hollywood by the collar with Menace II Society. The film, about black, disenfranchised youth, opened to critical acclaim and big box office. They returned to that milieu in 1995 with the ambitious Dead Presidents, about a black Vietnam soldier returning to a life of crime in the hood. With American Pimp, a controversial 1999 documentary, they took a straight-on view of the gold-medallion and Cadillac set.
But the duo wanted to branch out. Albert says they wondered, "How come no white actors want to work with us? Damn! Because we're doing black movies." In 1996 they signed a deal with Universal, but "we languished for four years," says Albert, "because I think they were scared to make a movie with us." Even then the two saw From Hell--adapted from the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell--as a chance to do something unexpected. Universal passed, then the script stalled at New Line before finding a home at Fox. "We jumped on it," says Fox chairman Tom Rothman, who was intrigued with putting "an incredibly contemporary sensibility in turn-of-the-century London."
Despite the bigger budget ($35 million), a radical change of scene and an all-white cast, From Hell has some striking similarities to the Hughes twins' previous work: it's populated by hookers, and even good men are seduced by drugs. Depp's lavish, opium-induced visions help him solve the crime and let the brothers show off their visual bravado. "It was an interesting way to tell what was going on in his head," says Allen. ("We make no secret that we smoke marijuana," says Albert, who calls it "an aid to creativity.")