HCF REWIND NO. 218: FROM HELL [US 2001]
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 118 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1888, Mary Kelly and her small group of London prostitutes trudge through unrelenting daily misery, having nearly all of what little money they do earn taken away by a cruel protection gang. Annie Crook, one of their number, has a baby with a handsome rich man, but is kidnapped and lobotomised. This is soon followed by the gruesome murder of another woman, Martha Tabram, and it becomes apparent that they are being hunted down, murdered and mutilated post mortem. The killings grab the attention of Whitechapel Police Inspector Frederick Abberline, a brilliant yet troubled man whose police work is often aided by his psychic visions….
There have been so many films about the London’s most famous serial killer that it’s hard to decide which one is the best, especially because, if you have some interest in and knowledge about the Ripper, one’s own opinions about who may or may not have been the killer can’t help but be an influence. A rare Hollywood production to deal with Jack [for whatever reason, most of the Ripper films have been made outside the town], From Hell immediately stakes a claim to be the ultimate Ripper film and in many ways it succeeds in this: though there are many different takes on the subject, this film almost comes across as a compliation of Ripper imagery and cliches which have grown over the years, even though it can’t, by the very nature of the mysteries surrounding the Ripper which still haven’t been satisfactorily solved [books still keep on coming out and sometimes by the same writers who update earlier works with new theories], be the final word on the subject. It’s a compelling, moody mystery in its own right, if a little flawed in certain areas.
From Hell was based on the graphic novel of the same title by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. The two were not too happy how the screenplay by Terry Hayes and Rafael Ygelisias simplified and supposedly ‘dumbed down’ their book and changed many emphases, such as not showing who Jack was near the beginning and adopting his point of view for much of the same. 20th Century insisted on a romance be inserted into the story – the first script didn’t have one and as it stands it seems a little out of place. Albert and Allen Hughes seemed like odd choices considering their previous two black ghetto-set dramas but in fact they had the right sensibility for the project. Daniel Day-Lewis was asked to play the lead but turned it down, while Ian Holm had to replace Nigel Hawthorne as the physician William Gull because Hawthorn’s cancer began to prevent him from being unable to work. Shot in Prague, several scenes, such as the ending which originally took place in Shanghai, were reshot and others cut, notably the death of Netley the Ripper’s coachman while he’s masturbating! Despite there being considerable interest in the Ripper at the time, From Hell, which was perhaps a bit too downbeat and serious [though that didn’t hurt Seven] for many, didn’t turn out to be the hit expected, though it probably remains the best known and most seen Ripper movie.
One of the most common theories about Jack the Ripper [and this won’t spoil much for you if you haven’t seen the film] is that the murders were a device to cover up certain doings by Prince Edward, the errant Duke of Clarence. Though this has been disproved by many, this elaborate theory, first essayed by the writer Stephen Knight, remains one of the few to pay much attention to the fact that the victims were all well-known to each other. It formed the basis of the 1979 film Murder By Decree, which was the second of two pictures which pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack. It means that From Hell can be partly considered a remake of that film, though it tries to be more accurate. Inspector Frederick Abberline and Sergeant Peter Godfrey both actually investigated the murders when they happened, though they never worked together and Abberline’s fate was very different to his one in the film. You can see some of the real photographs of the victims pinned to a wall in the police station, and great care was taken to accurate reproduce stuff like the sites of the murders, though except for one instance the film doesn’t show that the Ripper actually strangled his victims before pulling out his knives.
Of course accuracy is not essential because in a sense From Hell is as much about the creation of the legend of Jack the Ripper as it is anything else, and takes delight in putting probably every familiar image we may have of Jack on-screen. I especially love a shot of a victim-to-be riding in the Ripper’s carriage while the black silhouette of the Ripper is seen behind her against a red background. Then there are more obvious elements of other Ripper films, even in the plot, such as a re-use of Time After Time’s victim switch. Though Prague doesn’t entirely convince as London, the sense of time is very well done and even at times quite subtle – check out the noises of Victorian machines you sometimes here in the background – while the Hughes brothers, along with cinematographer Peter Deming, immediately show off their confidence with an extraordinary shot that begins with the London skyline, pans down past towers and steam trains, and plunges into a subterranean Masonic crypt. The film looks fabulous throughout, though some of the prostitutes, especially Heather Graham’s Mary Kelly who along with her weak Irish accent and forced semi-romance with Johnny Depp’s hero is the weakest link in the film, look too glamorous, and what’s with the lesbian hooker who keeps unsuccessfully trying it on with the others? At least the depiction of prostitution is far more honest than objectionable nonsense like Pretty Woman. Meanwhile Depp’s character, who with both his laudanum and absinthe addiction and his visions which help him solve crimes, comes across as a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Robert Lees, a real-life psychic who lived at the time of the murders and is often believed to have known his identity. The character’s actions at the end don’t make much sense.
Aside from the killings, From Hell doesn’t feature much in the way of action, but its complex plot is very well told, with more and more information fed to the audience until we get a very vivid, and, whether you believe the theories presented or not, convincing portrayal of a society which is thoroughly rotten from the top to the bottom. The Hughes brothers certainly manage to get in some social commentary here and you have to ask yourself if things have really changed much since 1988. The rich will always abuse the poor and who can you really trust? The murders, which are initially quite subtly done, increase in graphicness and along with their very stylish handling [one terrific stabbing is shown in flashes of light and dark] give From Hell the feeling of a giallo. We don’t see everything the Ripper does, and, while the amount of briefly glimpsed gore near the end is very high for a studio film, would you believe it but the actual murder [a photograph exists of the aftermath] was even more gruesome than as shown in the film. To truly show the kills as they really were a movie would probably be almost unwatchable except for a select few, and From Hell does an excellent job of getting across the gruesomeness without showing us every single detail.
Depp does well in making his rather contrived character believable, though he hadn’t got anywhere near to perfecting his cockney accent yet. Robbie Coltrane is a fine foil for Depp and provides just a few moments of near-levity though his character we don’t seem to know much about at all. Trevor Jones supplies the appropriately moody musical backing though his score never really takes flight. From Hell may not get everything right – a good example being the final scene, which is intended to really move but doesn’t quite succeed in doing so because we don’t care quite as much as we should – but can you see a major studio today taking on a project that literally oozes so much gloom and despair? The sense of dread in From Hell is amazingly powerful and stays with you for a long time after you may have decided that the idea of the Crown being responsible for such things as the Ripper murders is totally ridiculous and utterly unrealistic.