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Posts Tagged ‘From Hell’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 14th 2002:

When I was but a lad, it seemed there was a new Jack the Ripper themed film out every couple of years. Something seems to have changed in the intervening time as the last noteworthy Ripper movie I can think of was Time After Time, released over twenty years ago. Last, that is, if you don’t count From Hell, based on a graphic novel by Northampton’s resident genius, Alan Moore.

From Hell is marginally more historically accurate than some past stabs at this subject – which is to say that there are no appearances by HG Wells, Sherlock Holmes or Dr Jekyll. Set in London in 1888, it concerns a group of Whitechapel prostitutes (led by Heather Graham, but including amongst their number several well-known faces from British TV, even – I think – Nicole from those car adverts) whose already squalid lifestyle gets even worse as someone starts murdering them one by one and then horrifically mutilating the bodies. Scotland Yard put Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp) on the case. As well as a peeler, Abberline is a clairvoyant (this is less help than you’d expect), and a smackhead (this is a lot more help than you’d expect!). His investigations lead him to uncover a dark secret at the heart of the British establishment…

For all the intimations that this is to be a radical and original new take on the Ripper mythos, there’s really not very much new here at all. It’s the traditional take on the story, as a predatory toff terrorises vulnerable young harlots from the underclass. The ‘solution’ proposed by the script is over a quarter of a century old and has already been used as the basis of one pretty good film (1979’s Murder By Decree). But the story is told fairly solidly for the most part, with reliable supporting performances from the likes of Ian Richardson, David Schofield, Paul Rhys, and especially Robbie Coltrane and Ian Holm.

Most of the interesting material in From Hell is visual: it’s aesthetically lustrous, palpably brooding, with Victorian London designed and shot like something out of a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. Depp’s opium-provoked visions are convincingly hallucinatory and the film is always worth looking at. The Hughes even retain the almost self-parodic image of the Ripper as clad in a top hat and cape, and have a lot of fun deploying this icon as a silhouette, etc.

But ultimately, I was disappointed by From Hell. As a horror film it’s not very scary – and, caveat emptor, not very violent or gory either. Most of the really nasty stuff is implied, although there’s an impressive but gratuitous cameo by the Elephant Man in all his twisted glory. This lack of explicitness didn’t bother me at all, certainly nowhere near as much as the performances of the two leads. Depp is fine but for his Cockney accent – it’s not Mary Poppins time, thankfully, but it’s still much too EastEnders for a middle-class police detective. Heather Graham isn’t too bad as the ho with a heart of gold but it’s a stock character from start to finish and she’s obviously the only whore in Whitechapel with her own hairdresser and skin-care specialist. The romance between the two doesn’t ring true at all.

However, this in turn is eclipsed by a truly awful conclusion: an unconvincing plot-twist has been tacked on in an attempt to provide a bittersweet happy ending. To me it seemed patronising and quite possibly insulting to the genuine victims of the real Ripper murderer. Although, if we’re going to start down that route, perhaps we should question the whole process of mythologising a brutal and misogynistic serial killer for the sake of entertainment. From Hell is aware of the iconic status of Jack the Ripper as one of the fountainheads of modern horror – both real and fantastical – but chooses not to explore this idea in any real detail. A shame: because while From Hell is a moderately satisfying horror mystery – especially, I’d imagine, if you’re not too familiar with the subject matter – it’s not nearly as insightful or original as it thinks it is. Back to the drawing board, guys.

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