21 – FROM HELL, USA 2001
This movie should be watched at midnight and in a dark room. Not because it is terrifying. From Hell is late night viewing for those whose brains need rest. And nothing soothes tired brain cells as much as the promise that the inexplicable will be wiped away by research and glib conclusions. The myth of Jack The Ripper nags us like other mysteries. We cannot solve the puzzle of the unsolved murders but watching others make an attempt helps us to relax. Investigation promises order and progress, past chaos that can be wrapped neatly.
From Hell is based on a black and white graphic novel that recycled a familiar conspiracy theory about Jack The Ripper. The film has a different design. The colour photography in From Hell is good and has lots of reds and greens. It has a nostalgic feel and is a distance from the fake monochrome that is fashionable in colour movies today. Providing the TV is tuned properly, From Hell looks good in a dark room, and that is another reason for watching late at night. And the actors look fine as well. Ian Holm is not as handsome as Johnny Depp or Heather Graham but he has great contact lenses, and they are used to splendid effect in two key scenes. The use of the contact lenses of Holm is inspired and it makes From Hell essential viewing.
Johnny Depp is handsome and has trend appeal but he is a strange and fanciful choice for Inspector Abberline the policeman who was responsible for investigating the Ripper murders. In From Hell, Inspector Abberline is dreamy rather than methodical. Depp does whimsical somnambulism as well as anyone. It is tempting to say that Depp can play vacant dreamers in his sleep. The quiet voice and bemused expression have been around for so long someone should invent the word Deppy as an adjective for remote airheads. The Abberline creation in From Hell is neither like the real man nor the gruff creation in the original graphic novel. This Abberline takes opium and adds laudanum to his absinthe. The heart breaking Sergio Leone gangster movie Once Upon A Time In America began and ended in an opium den. The same happens in From Hell. Both heroes seek oblivion from a dreadful world and the pain of enduring the memory of lost opportunities. A hostile society controlled by a small minority plus our inability to anticipate the future and the consequence of our decisions mean that most of us are obliged to waste our lives. We have a sense of this at the end of From Hell but only if we remember Once Upon A Time In America.
Jack The Ripper was an outsider and an avenger with an appetite. His territory was the often overlooked wreckage of 19th Century urban London. In 1888 there were 1400 known prostitutes and 80 brothels amongst the 78,000 residents of Whitechapel. 1400 underestimates the extent of prostitution because other women would alternate selling their bodies with work that could not provide a regular income. In From Hell the Ripper murderer is connected to the Royal Family. This explanation of the mystery has been rubbished by the experts but it makes a good tale. The myth would have persisted anyway but identifying Ripper as a gentleman gives it added resonance. The clash between the rich and the poor was more violent than some remember, and the actions of the Ripper remind us how capricious fate and unequal struggles can wreck lives and drain meaning from existence.
From Hell opens with a quote from Jack The Ripper. The quote is repeated near the end of the film. Jack claims that he has given birth to the 20th Century. This is a good line, and there are not many in From Hell, but the line is not a consequence of serious thought. Slavery and selling opium to the Chinese were more important to the subsequent 20th Century than Jack The Ripper. Instead, he was the first serial killer to wander across the modern world and he remains unknown. We will always be interested. The Ripper has metaphorical significance but it is restricted to his desire to turn over the stones that hid Victorian poverty from the sight of the affluent. This desire to lift stones and expose aberration and violence has remained, and the rest is history. Jack The Ripper appeared forty years after Edgar Allan Poe published The Murders In The Rue Morgue. Our never ending fascination with what may be under the stones may have always existed but Jack The Ripper and Edgar Allan Poe insisted we should also be baffled. George Bernard Shaw had a point when he described the mysterious slayer as a ‘demented genius’.
From Hell was directed by the Hughes Brothers. Their last film was The Book Of Eli and that, like all their films, received mixed reviews. They are African Americans and for most of their lives they were raised by a single, resolute and feminist mother. The Hughes Brothers listened to her and are sensitive to the exploitation of women. The five female victims in From Hell are united through friendship and their pimps. More emphasis is given to the victims than is normal in Jack The Ripper fiction and this is a virtue. We still await the tale from a working class perspective rather than patrician outsiders but the lives of the poor are given more attention in From Hell.
From Hell may look good on a large TV screen in the dark but the ears do suffer. Robbie Coltrane plays Sergeant Peter Godley the assistant to Abberline. He has a superior vocabulary but he is not eloquent. Robbie Coltrane in From Hell is a walking one-man exposition model. His questions and clarification carry the plot. The tale is complex, especially when a conspiracy theory is added, but mistakes are made in the dialogue that could have been avoided. At times it feels like Depp and Coltrane are in a competition to deliver dreadful lines. ‘They tell me you’re the best young surgeon in London,’ says Abberline. This should win prizes but at a murder scene Coltrane chips in with, ‘Yes. This is Annie Chapman. Dark Annie they call her.’
And there are more. Robbie Coltrane began his career as a comedian, and that suggests that the film might be tongue in cheek. And, with a name like Godley, the Detective Sergeant is entitled to be a know all. But both the script and the graphic novel lack humour and irony. No one in the film looks amused. The film may be stylish but we sense that the actors feel they are working in a dry project.
Although graphic the murders do not shock or disturb. The victims are predestined to be slaughtered, and history, and a conspiracy that was prepared earlier, keep us at a safe distance. The most disturbing moments in the film take place in a lunatic asylum. These capture the heartlessness of the powerful and perhaps us all. Dickens alerted us to the redundancy of utilitarianism, and From Hell recognises and continues his protest. The visible wounds from the lobotomies set the teeth on edge.
The film has other worthwhile moments. The shot of how the South Bank of the Thames might have looked before it became the home of the Royal Festival Hall and the National Theatre suggests a different time and imagination. Liz Moscrop is great and authentic as Queen Victoria and a pleasant alternative to the wild invention of Judie Dench in Mrs Brown. The revelation that ‘the human heart is notoriously difficult to burn’ is an interesting thought and it fits this film. Twisted desires have a long history. The transformation of a respectable member of the establishment to the crazed assassin requires no more than acting skill and different contact lenses. It is subtle and forces the audience to stare and think.
Inevitably the film reminds us of the enduring tragedy of the British class system. These reminders are not always subtle. Rich whiskered buffoons make crass remarks about people they regard as social inferiors. The hierarchy is obvious, and its aristocrats do not have to state their prejudices for the audience to realise that the rich and poor will be obliged to make glib assumptions about people they never meet. Perhaps that is why the myth of Jack The Ripper continues to interest. The tale is kept alive by the curiosity of people condemned to misunderstand not just history and the events but their neighbours and themselves. Insanity is present both in the original story and in From Hell. Because of a class divided Britain, insanity is as terrifying for the British as it is for anyone. We are all remote from what feels like the majority, our superiors and inferiors. This distance prevents trust in others and ourselves. We are not surprised that the one man who knows the truth about his neighbours and what they do seeks oblivion in an opium den. And if the indulgence of a psychopath helped launch 20th Century capitalism, what the hell.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.