From Hell (2001)

Author: Wes R.
Submitted by: Wes R.   Date : 2011-12-03 03:27

Directed by: The Hughes Brothers
Written by: Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell (graphic novel) and
Terry Hayes & Rafael Yglesias (screenplay)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Robbie Coltrane, and Ian Holm.

Reviewed by: Wes R.

“One day men will look back and say that I gave birth to the twentieth century.”

For better or worse, the person or persons responsible for the gruesome Jack the Ripper murders of Victorian England have become world famous. What has captivated the minds of detectives near and far for going on two centuries isn't just the whodunnit aspect of a murder left unsolved but also the sheer brutality of the Ripper's acts. It's hard to imagine crimes as savage of these taking place today, let alone during a period that most like to think of as civilized and eloquent. Never an industry to let a good story go untold (or exploited) Hollywood has naturally utilized the Ripper's tale many times over the years, with everyone from Klaus Kinski to Tom Savini taking a stab at it. Even classic characters such as Count Dracula and Sherlock Holmes have encountered "Saucy Jack" across various mediums. With a multi-million dollar budget, A-list leads, and a keen emphasis on detail, From Hell aimed to be the most authentic Ripper project to date. Did it succeed? Let's tear it open and see what squishy, grisly goodies lay within.

A bubbly prostitute has a baby by a wealthy client, and soon after, her downtrodden friends are stalked and eviscerated one-by-one by a mysterious cloaked man. Opium and absinthe addict, Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) is soon brought on to the case. Abberline (who seems to have visions relating to the murders) begins to suspect that despite police claims that a butcher or foreigner are responsible for the crimes, the unknown assailant could very well be in cahoots with one of London's most prominent families. Will he catch the murderer before he rips even more prostitutes to pieces?

From Hell is an intriguing and well-polished, if not entirely plausible, look at the Jack the Ripper case. Not having read the original graphic novel on which this is based, I can only judge it as a movie based on real life events that I have looked into occasionally through the years. The Jack the Ripper case has haunted many a researcher, and to this day, no one is any closer to unveiling Jack's identity than they were during his day. This movie is well-directed by The Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents). You can tell they have a genuine interest in the subject matter and went to great lengths to get it right. The set design perfectly captures the filth and sleaze that permeated this impoverished area of London. This isn't the prim and proper London you often see depicted in movies based on turn of the century literature. This is a story filled with dark back alleys and opium dens. You can practically smell the urine in the streets and the sweat of the prostitutes. It's an ugly time and place, but in the haunting details, there lies a certain beauty as well. Also impressive is the atmospheric instrumental score by Trevor Jones. The film only uses computer generated imagery to depict the grand landscapes of London, Abberline's psychic visions/drug hallucinations, and to slightly enhance the evil manifestation of Jack the Ripper's appearance (once his identity is revealed on screen). For the most part, the film plays very classical in nature.

The acting is generally solid, and overall I really like the cast. Depp is great in what may have been his last great pre-Jack Sparrow role. The only person I would've cast differently is Heather Graham. Though she may fill a bustier quite nicely, her cockney accent is nowhere close to being convincing. At times, it gets high-school-version-of-A-Christmas-Carol bad. While the other rough-looking prostitute actresses flawlessly fit their roles, Heather Graham just kind of sticks out like a sore thumb. Maybe she has too much baggage as Felicity Shagwell from Austin Powers or Rollergirl from Boogie Nights, but I felt like she never successfully disappeared into the role. I did like the strong supporting performances by Ian Holm (Lord of the Rings) and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid from the Harry Potter Series). Though the murders themselves were beyond brutal (the Ripper removed organs, teeth, parts of the victims' ears, and even... well, as Coltrane's character delicately puts it "their livelyhood". However, none of this is shown in gory, graphic detail. Whether it was a stylistic decision on behalf of the Hughes Brothers to utilize clever editing and sound effects to convey the horror (ala Texas Chainsaw Massacre), or if their hand was forced by the MPAA to leave most of the 'ripping' off-screen or just out of frame, we'll likely never know. We do get to see glimpses of the aftermath of his victims, but the true-blue gorehound will likely be disappointed with the lack of grue, for what could have been a very blood-soaked motion picture. Had the true nature of the Ripper's crimes been accurately and graphically depicted on screen, more than a few audience members would've been shaken to the core. One of my earliest Internet memories involved a Jack the Ripper search, and running across actual crime scene and autopsy photos of the Ripper victims. It takes a lot to disturb me, but these images literally turned my stomach. I'm not sure if it was knowing that these people actually endured this massacre and had these horrible things done to their bodies, or the graphic mutilation paired with the crude black and white photography, but those images of pure evil truly got to me. I turned my computer off and went straight to bed. That's how potent the gore imagery could have been, based on what actually occurred.

While historical accuracy in films isn't generally a dealbreaker, part of what keeps me from loving the movie more than I do is the fact that it adheres to the "royal conspiracy" theory, that many other Jack the Ripper projects seem to buy into. To their defense, however, in a case where there are literally hundreds of different theories as to the identity of the murderer, I suppose they went with the one that made the most sense dramatically. As a very amateur Ripperologist, I myself have come to believe particular theory makes far better fiction than it does a reality. Maybe I'm just not much of a conspiracy theorist, but it is simply too far-fetched to have occurred. I think it is much more likely that Jack the Ripper was a crazed doctor or butcher who killed under his own bizarre motives. From Hell does manage to get some things right, though. For example, one of the most interesting aspects of the Ripper case to me has been the killer's alleged correspondence with police and the news media of the time, via handwritten letters. The movie mostly dismisses these letters as hoaxes, even though a small handful of letters are now generally regarded by researchers as likely authentic. However, just like in the movie, at the time they were originally received by police, most believed them to be the false (possibly the creations of reporters who stood to benefit from continued Ripper hysteria). Liberty is taken with Depp's Abberline character, however, who is depicted as a drug addict and clairvoyant. The actual Frederick Abberline was by most historical accounts, neither.

From Hell has been released on DVD in a 2-disc Director's Edition by 20th Century Fox and re-packaged several times as a single-disc title. The anamorphic transfer is gorgeous, showcasing the lush cinematography and extensive period detail that the Hughes Brothers brought to the film. The packed to the hilt with extra content, featuring bonus material delving into the facts from the actual Ripper case, the making of the film, and even a featurette dedicated to Abberline's drug of choice, absinthe. The listing for the Fox Blu-Ray seems to contain most of the same features. Is From Hell the ultimate Jack the Ripper movie, as it aims to be? It's pretty damn good, but I still think the ultimate telling of the tale has yet to be made. For now, it stands head and shoulders above most of the others (even though the 1988 Michael Caine TV miniseries gave me nightmares as a kid). Between this and Sleepy Hollow, Depp seems to be 2/2 when it comes to period horror (though, I haven't seen his Sweeney Todd just yet... if that even counts as horror). But, if you are at all interested in period horror or true crime, you owe it to yourself to find this one as soon as possible and Buy it!

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