Screenplay : Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias (based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Johnny Depp (Inspector Frederick Abberline), Heather Graham (Mary Kelly), Ian Holm (Sir William Gull), Robbie Coltrane (Sergeant Peter Godley), Ian Richardson (Sir Charles Warren), Annabelle Apsion (Polly Nichols), Katrin Cartlidge (Annie Chapman), Bryon Fear (Robert Best)
Some 114 years after he murdered at least five women in London's East End, we still do not know for sure who Jack the Ripper was. He remains a shadowy figure of both history and myth, and although he was not the first serial killer, he remains the "prototype" for thinking about serial killing. As Mark Seltzer noted in his book Serial Killers, "That nothing reliable is known about the identity or motives of this London killer is itself a central part of the model: the endless rituals of noncomprehension that continue to surround the kind of person called the serial killer."
Because so little is known about Jack the Ripper, he has provided an easy space into which we can project fears and tensions about everything from illicit sexuality to the uneasiness of urban dwelling. Because he has no face or name, the Ripper is a blank slate on which he write our own terrors. Thus, because he transcends time by virtue of his unknowability, the Ripper is the perfect central figure for a horror movie.
In the Hughes Brothers' From Hell, the Ripper looms large over the dismal living conditions of Victorian London in the autumn of 1888. Like the best works on the Ripper, From Hell lavishes a great amount of attention on the society in which the killings took place, thus linking the violence and the culture that spawned it. Much of this is a result of the film being based on a popular and critically acclaimed graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, which runs some 500 pages in length, 40 of which are footnotes about the research that went into its production. London at the end of the 1880s is presented as a world sharply divided among the rich and the poor, filled with bitter racism, and struggling toward a modern identity through industrialism, scientific rationality, and mechanization. Large towers belch the smoke of factories into the air while medical societies marvel over the deformities of John Merrick, the "Elephant Man," and the wonderful new science of lobotomizing difficult mental patients.
As a story about violence in an urban society, it is not surprising that the film is as much about class as it is about the terrifying events that took place from August to early November. The victims were all prostitutes, the lowest of the low in Victorian British society, barely surviving in the squalid darkness of the streets in the Whitechapel district. It is telling that the first few murdered prostitutes are attributed to a street gang that has been trying to extort money from them; the Ripper's violence may be ghastly in the extreme, but the film's point is that it's not that far removed from the everyday realities of the most desperate of the lowest classes.
Johnny Depp stars as Frederick Abberline, the Scotland Yard inspector in charge of the case. In one of the film's many careful blurrings of fact and fiction, Abberline is introduced as an opium junkie who has psychic visions when "chasing the dragon," often seeing the murders in dreams before they happen. As his partner, Sergeant Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane) tells him, "They used to burn men like you at the stake."
It is crucial that Abberline is not your typical hero-sleuth. In many ways, he is as much an outsider as the prostitutes who become the Ripper's victims, thus it does not feel forced or contrived in any way that he eventually falls in love with one of them, Mary Kelly (Heather Graham). They share something in common—a view of English life from the fringes. Yet, Abberline is the only figure who can traverse those boundaries, moving easily among the denizens of Mary's world while still being able to hold his own in the highest realms of royal society, particularly in his dealings with the Queen's personal doctor, Sir William Gull (Ian Holm).
The title of the film comes from a return address at the top of one of the letters the Ripper supposedly sent. That simple phrase, "from hell," is evocative of our deepest fears about men like the Ripper, suggesting as it does that he is a true demon, not just a sick human. At one point, the Ripper himself, voiced in a skin-crawling, rasping baritone, tells an accomplice that they are, in fact, in hell.
Yet, outside of Abberline's psychic abilities, there is nothing supernatural about From Hell. In fact, like many Ripper movies, it unmasks the killer in the end—in very human form—using the "Royal Conspiracy Theory." This theory first implicated Queen Victoria's grandson, Prince Albert Victor, as the killer, but was later modified so that his involvement was secondary, while the blame fell on royal surgeons with Masonic ties. This theory was first generated by a 1970 article in The Criminologist called "A Solution" by Dr. Thomas Stowell. The theory was used to controversial effect in the BBC's 1973 programme Jack the Ripper, and was further popularized in Stephen Knight's 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. With its conspiratorial links of royalty, the medical establishment, and shadowy secret organizations, it is of little surprise that this is the solution most often used in films about the Ripper, including the 1979 Sherlock Holmes films Murder by Decree and ABC's 1988 miniseries Jack the Ripper.
How the movie ultimately explains the Ripper's identity is really of secondary importance, though. After all, no one knows for sure, and the decision to use the "Royal Conspiracy Theory" in From Hell is likely due to both the theory's lasting popularity as an explanation (despite it's having been debunked by Ripperologists everywhere, Knight's book has remained in print for more than two decades) and the fact that it offers so much material for a mystery-thriller. In a film about class divisions and power inequalities, it is only fitting that the gruesome doings of the Ripper are connected to the royal family and the wealthy elite. The murder and mutilation of the five women can be read metaphorically as what happens when those of a lower class threaten the ruling elite in any way: They are taken care of.
Directors Allen and Albert Hughes, who made a stunning debut in 1993 with their powerful ghetto drama Menace II Society, bring an impressive visual prowess to From Hell that makes it both a significant departure from, and a thematic continuation of, their American films about the urban African-American experience (which also include 1995's Dead Presidents and the 1999 documentary American Pimp). Working with production designer Martin Childs (Quills), they have created a vision of Victorian-era London (actually shot in Prague) that is both appalling and fascinating in its vast disparities among the wealthy and the poverty-stricken. You can literally smell the smoke of the Industrial Revolution in the air and feel the grit beneath your fingers.
Yet, in keeping with the graphic-novel origins of the narrative, the Hughes Brothers give the film an air of visual theatricality that is reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's work on Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). They give us expansive vistas of London's late-19th-century skyline beneath a painterly, impossibly blood-red sky that seems to bear down on the nameless who walk the streets at night. The camerawork of cinematographer Peter Deming (Mulholland Drive) is equally virtuoso, moving easily from tight, claustrophobic spaces within the city to grand, sweeping wide shots, such as one that begins well above the city streets and descends in one smooth movement deep beneath the cobblestones to an underground lair.
From Hell is a powerful horror thriller, visually evocative and full of dread and foreboding. The Hughes Brothers rely largely on quick flashes of violence in the dark and the suggestion of what the Ripper has done, rather than dwelling on the gore. It's an effective move that avoids sensationalizing the gruesomeness of the violence and instead emphasizes its ritualistic qualities and the sad irony of how this sort of mayhem became a part of how the Ripper's victims lived. As From Hell shows in such eerily disturbing fashion, Jack the Ripper emerged from the turmoil of a society moving into industrial modernity and, in his own self-conscious way, made sensational a form of violence that still fascinates and repels us today precisely because of its connection to modern society in the machine age.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick