Ripping Good Fun
Like every other too-smart kid bored with school, I haunted the library as a child, devouring books about weird, unexplainable shit like the Loch Ness Monster and ancient astronauts and JFK conspiracy theories and just who was Jack the Ripper, anyway? To a kid not challenged by multiplication tables and spelling bees, this was a godsend, this thinking way out of the box about secret, sinister stuff they never told you about at school. And how cool did it feel to be taking books out of the grownup section of the library?
I know I wasn’t alone in this. This kind of childhood obsessing is how things like The X-Files happen. This is why movies like From Hell get made, because guys like the Hughes Brothers — Allen and Albert, who directed this squalidly romantic movie — soaked up one too many episodes of In Search Of… with Leonard Nimoy when they were kids. Jolly Jack and his ‘orrible crimes… They were horribly gruesome, nasty murders, and he preyed on some of the most vulnerable people in his society with a perversity the world had never seen before. But with the distance of time, they’ve become less plainly shocking and more irresistibly fascinating.
The Hughes Brothers — adapting a graphic novel by Alan Moore — have gone to great lengths to re-personalize the Ripper’s victims for us, more than a century after the murders took place, to make the story as immediate as possible for us, to engender our sympathy. I can’t in all honesty say they’ve succeeded in doing that, and it just may be the nature of Jack’s story that makes such a mission nearly impossible. The East End prostitutes Jack murders are ably depicted here, and portrayed by a cast, led by Heather Graham (Bowfinger, Lost in Space), that does a fine job, but they cannot help but be less interesting than Jack himself: the stories of poor, lower-class women are, alas, timeless and sadly familiar — doing a nasty job to scrape by, struggling to keep their heads above the waterline of destitution — but we are here to see Jack. There’s a good reason why he became the first star of newspaper tabloids.
And it’s almost as if the Hughes Brothers can’t help but celebrate their — and our — lurid absorption with Jack, despite their noble intentions. From Hell oozes atmosphere — it’s a wildly fun Disney attraction of a movie that revels in the beloved clichés of late 19th-century London in such a way that you want to join the characters on the screen, danger be damned. This is a stylish, suggestively gruesome urban gothic of dark and rainy cobblestone alleyways, of seedy pubs, of murder illuminated by gaslight and hidden by fog. The Elephant Man — star of his own true-life London horror story — makes two appearances. We have a haunted Sherlock Holmes in police inspector Frederick George Abberline, assigned to the Ripper case — addicted to opium, taken to imbibing absinthe spiked with laudanum, he’s an X-File in himself, letting his drug-induced hallucinations direct his investigation. Abberline slinks through the film far more sneakily than does Jolly Jack himself — the identity of the Ripper and the goryness of his deeds are hidden from us behind his gentleman’s cloak and top hat, but he goes about his business chillingly, casually out in the open — and Johnny Depp (Blow, Chocolat) is clearly having fun with a character even more brooding, more crushed by circumstances, and less caring of what his superiors think of his unorthodox methods than his similar character in Sleepy Hollow.
It would probably help to approach From Hell with a steeping in Ripper lore — keeping track of the many characters, the suspects galore, the royal scandals, and the political corruption could require a cheat sheet. But it’s not necessary, for if From Hell fails, it’s in that it is merely one of the classiest slasher flicks ever made, and nothing more. The enjoyment of such a purely popcorn movie like this one won’t be hindered by missing half the plot.