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TOO NEAT, TOO RANDOM: <I>FROM HELL</I> AND <I>DONNIE DARKO</I>

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by Ben Kenigsberg John Merrick, the infamous Elephant Man, makes a brief appearance in From Hell as the live subject of a medical-school lecture. Since From Hell ...

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by Ben Kenigsberg

John Merrick, the infamous Elephant Man, makes a brief appearance in


From Hell


as the live subject of a medical-school lecture. Since

From Hell

is ostensibly a movie about Jack the Ripper, it seems, at first, that Merrick is irrelevant. But as

From Hell

progresses, it becomes clear that the movie is not about Jack the Ripper as much as it is about the time and place in which he lived. The movie is particularly curious about 1888 England's fascination with the grotesque. Hence Merrick's presence, hence the med-school lobotomy demos.

But invoking the Elephant Man backfires. After all, Merrick was the subject of David Lynch's

Elephant Man

(1980), a less flashy, more haunting representation of Victorian London. As hard as

From Hell

tries to re-create the time and the city -- through good costumes, fine makeup (dig the Chester Arthur beard), and imperious dialogue --

The Elephant Man

, a good but not great movie, serves as a measure of its shortcomings.

The Elephant Man

doesn't turn its characters into heroes and villains; it merely tells their stories and leaves the audience to interpret them.

From Hell's

biggest flaws are in its narrative. Every time I thought the film had steered clear of a clich, it took the movie no more than half an hour to prove me wrong. The incomparable Johnny Depp plays Abberline, a psychic inspector whose gifts seem to tell him slightly less than he needs to know at every step. When Sgt. Godley (Robbie Coltrane) actually listened to Abberline, I thought, "Finally, a movie whose characters are smart enough to listen to the infallible psychic." Then the police commissioner (Ian Richardson) spoiled the day.

I was so happy when it appeared that Abberline wouldn't fall for Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), a gorgeous and improbably hygienic hooker. Oops. Not only do they fall in love -- they slow the movie to a halt for some back-alley smooching. Graham's accent, by the way, is believable enough, but you get the impression she's self-conscious about her acting in every scene; each shot plays like a failed audition.

The movie is at its most rote when it insists on tying up loose ends. I've been a stickler for closure all my life, but it's certainly acceptable not to unmask the villain in a true story. If you absolutely had to close the lid on this one, the ending we're given has an intriguing twist, although there are too few suspects to make

From Hell

all that interesting as a whodunnit. (The ending also inspires an unfortunate laugh.) Strange as it may seem, the

Picnic at Hanging Rock

approach -- concluding after numerous dead-ends in the investigation -- would have been more haunting and satisfying.

Artistically,

From Hell's

greatest failure is its scenery, which is so artificial that, at first, I thought it was an homage to

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

. (The film was shot in Prague.) But one look at the costumes will tell you that

From Hell

doesn't see its setting as an abstraction. And the gore is either intended as graphic realism or as a hat-tip to the slasher genre. Cinematographer Peter Deming gives the picture a fine gloomy look, although his relatively naturalistic work in

Mulholland Drive

made modern Los Angeles look even more foreboding.

The great Ian Holm shows up as a retired surgeon and professor who helps Abberline figure out Jack's m.o. from an anatomical standpoint. Holm is basically a cartoon here, but he gets one soliloquy that's so good, it made me want to rent

The Sweet Hereafter

again. Now there's a great performance.

Directors Allen and Albert Hughes (

Menace II Society

,

Dead Presidents

) are great stylists, but since Terry Hayes's and Rafael Yglesias's screenplay, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, keeps copping out, how well the twins set up each shot means little. By the time the film is over, compared to what's going on in the foreground, the sets look downright realistic.

While riding the escalator down from the theater where I saw


Donnie Darko


, I heard the woman behind me exclaim that the film was great because of "all it said about time." I stopped eavesdropping at that point, but perhaps she had a better understanding of it than I did. I couldn't get a handle on the time-travel aspects of the story, and I can't imagine that whatever the film was saying about the nature of time -- if it was saying anything -- was so profound. The film is either an allegorical meditation on the horrors of teenagehood or a surrealist fantasy for midnight parties. Take your pick.

Donnie Darko's

title character is a glum, disturbed high-schooler who takes orders from an imaginary rabbit -- orders like "break a water main in your school with an axe" and "burn down so-and-so's house." In other words, that rabbit ain't Harvey.

Donnie is super-intelligent, but he lacks social graces. He has the gall to tell his gym teacher that her attempts at social work are idiotic. The scene in which he tells her off, by itself, is almost worth the price of admission.

But the movie becomes stranger and stranger as it goes along, not providing a sufficient explanation for all that occurs. Every plot twist can be dismissed as either 1) a delusion or 2) an act in a freak show, and neither write-off cuts it. First-time director Richard Kelly's movie is very funny, and it's often visually dynamic. By passing itself off as satire, though, it suggests it's more clever than it is.