From Hell (2001)

When it’s on: Saturday, 24 October (11.10 pm)
Channel: 5*
IMDb Link

It’s Halloween week, something taken very seriously at FOTB Towers as the old fright flicks are dusted off and yours truly tries once again to carve out a pumpkin, with grisly consequences for all concerned. I’m covering four films that can be tagged as ‘horror’ – two good ones, two that in my opinion are great, and we start with From Hell, the 2001 entry based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel that did little business at the box office but over the years has developed something of a cult following.

I’m not the biggest fan of ‘comics’ and so have no opinion of the film’s merits against Moore’s work. Certainly, the writer loathed it, as he has pretty much every subsequent adaptation. He didn’t like Johnny Depp’s take on the story’s hero, Inspector Frederick Abberline, neither was he impressed with the film’s condensing of his book’s labyrinthine plotting into a Victorian whodunnit. By all accounts, the collected material that makes up the graphic novel version of From Hell is a proper tome, nearly 600 pages in length and taking in as many elements of Victoriana as it was possible to shoehorn into the narrative. Little chance that the movie could replicate this to such a slavish extent, and scant wonder that the central storyline, which focused on the Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper, makes up the bulk of its content.

Jack, like the Zodiac killer in 1960s San Francisco, has become a historical figure mined by film makers. I suppose it’s something to do with the fact he was never brought to justice that lends some grisly fascination to his exploits. And there have been some quality productions inspired by him, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1925 film, The Lodger, a celebrated silent that first brought ‘Hitch’ to public attention. Murder by Decree served up the ultimate duel of wits by pitting Christopher Plummer’s Sherlock Holmes against Jack. It’s a really good film that plays on the possibility of the murders being linked to royal involvement. A less remembered treat – but no less a treat – is Time After Time, in which author HG Wells (Malcolm McDowell) uses his time machine to race to the future in order to foil David Warner’s serial killer. Back when I was a student, Michael Caine and Lewis Collins starred in mini-series Jack the Ripper, which promised to reveal the identity of the murderer based on freshly revealed evidence. A fine boast, the show was nonetheless required viewing that had us guessing over the two nights of its screening.

From Hell riffs on the conspiracy theory that Jack’s killing spree was mixed up in royal dalliances with the East End prostitutes and the shadowy Masonic order. The latter comprises much of London’s well heeled classes. Combined with the upper crust family of Queen Victoria, there’s a definite sense of patricians and plebeians to the tale, Joanna Page’s one-time unfortunate being quietly put ‘out of the way’ in an attempt to put an end to her secret marriage with the monarch’s grandson, Albert. The trouble is that her wedding was paid witness to by several of her friends, all prostitutes, and these too must be silenced. Enter Jack, who emerges as a tool to rid the crown of any evidence of Albert’s embarrassment.

Whitechapel is depicted as a suitably dank and gloomy place, full of black alleyways, damp, freezing cobblestones and dark-hearted denizens. Heather Graham affects a Cockney accent as Mary Kelly, one of the group of prostitutes who witnessed the wedding and is therefore a potential victim. One by one, her friends are killed in increasingly gruesome ways, Jack enticing his prey with grapes and liquor laced with laudanum before cutting their throats and removing their body parts, using surgical precision to complete the job quickly and efficiently before his crime can be noticed. Abberline (Depp) is on the trail and has become an opium addict, which helps him to have psychic visions of the murders to follow. Together with his doggedly loyal second in command, Godley (Robbie Coltrane), he steadily pieces together the killings, while his relationship with Mary, which starts professionally, becomes romantic. Abberline comes to realise that there’s more to the murders than random slaughter and recognises Jack as an agent of some higher and secret order, but who is he? There are various candidates, with even his Chief Inspector (Ralph Richardson) coming under suspicion for the evidence he covers up and the people he’s protecting. Only Ian Holm’s retired physician appears to offer any assistance and points Abberline in the right direction, exploding the killings into a much wider conspiracy than he previously imagined.

Depp had previously starred in Sleepy Hollow and was already convincing as a Londoner in a role that was intended to be serious, before he started taking on more comic parts. Graham is less able to convey the awful life experienced by the capital’s unfortunate women, and the romantic subplot between her and Abberline is more distracting than memorable. What you want is more depiction of the East End life and the struggles of the people, though there is a memorable pay-off at the film’s close when the Inspector realises that he and Mary can never be together. There’s little spared in terms of blood and gore, with the murders depicted in all but their goriest detail. It’s made clear this is a hard place, populated by people who’ve become tough as old boots as a consequence of the bleak times, with Jack’s murders turning into a sensation but not calling a halt to the things that happen there. Life, such as it is, goes on.

What From Hell does have is atmosphere, a beautifully shot inky murkiness from directors the Hughes Brothers that suggest Jack the Ripper is just one of a thousand less than salacious stories taking place all the time. The difficult mingling of the classes is well conveyed, the emerging field of surgery viewed with academic fascination rather than as a force for good – the horrific way Dr Ferral (Paul Rhys) has of dealing with people suffering from mental disorders shows how it could be abusive as well as benign, and all to serve the dignity and spare the blushes of the upper classes. The faces of the people tell a stack of stories. Jason Flemyng plays a coachman who’s unlucky enough to ferry Jack to his murder scenes and is crumbling under the emotional and moral toll of assisting a killing machine. Only 25 when From Hell was made, he looks much older, as though his years have seen just too many horrors in this terrible place.

From Hell: ***

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11 Replies to “From Hell (2001)”

  1. I remember not especially liking this one when I first saw it in the cinema, and that feeling stuck with me for a time afterwards. I had no knowledge of the comic (sorry, but I flat refuse to acknowledge the term graphic novel – it seems to have some subliminal sense of guilt about it) so that wasn’t n issue for me. Anyway, I came to appreciate the film more as time passed and I’ve a much better opinion of it these days.

    1. Thanks Colin – I know exactly what you mean about comics/graphic novels/whatever they want to call them. I’ve nothing against the artform but there are very examples that I’ve actually got into. Watchmen I never finished, which I accept is all down to me and personal taste, but I just couldn’t see what the big deal was. The only one I’ve really engaged with is Art Spiegelman’s Maus, but that was a very clever and poignant piece of work that transcended its trappings.The whole ‘graphic novel’ thing for me just sounds like a medium trying to justify itself, and unnecessarily so as far as I’m concerned.

      As for From Hell, when I first saw it I found it a bit of a confusing mess, but as you say more recent viewings have had a kinder reaction. I certainly liked Johnny Depp more before he slipped into caricature and parody. And the set-up and conception of nineteenth century London is really very well done.

      1. Yes to all. The atmosphere is well rendered and I also enjoy seeing Depp actually interested in acting, playing a real part as opposed to, as you rightly say, the rather broad parody he tended to opt for as time went on.

  2. I have casually watched it on TV once but not with much success (sic) – I have a slight aversion to the idea of yet another Jack the Ripper re-telling, so that may account for it, but I would like to read the original too, which as I understand it is just jam-packed with fascinating Victorian arcana

    1. Thanks Sergio. From what I understand, the book shoehorns just about any element of Victoriana into the plot that it can, a bit like Moore’s THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN in that regard, though in the film we get little more than an appearance of John Merrick to illustrate the wider nineteenth century world. I might get around to reading it one day, though I understand it’s a telephone directory sized book. I do like this sort of stuff though. I had a lot of fun reading Kim Newman’s ANNO DRACULA, which like this one was determined to cram every real-life and dramatised Victorian into its plotline.

      1. I do find that an intriguing approach, though I know I would need lots of energy to keep up! I got given the Newman as a present but have yet to crack it open – thanks for the reminder chum 🙂

      2. I have read the first one but am yet to really start the second – I really liked it, and admired the way it linked plotlines such as Jack the Ripper to the Dracula mythology. In fact, the weakest part of the story turned out to be Dracula himself, but everything building to that moment is compelling and coolly constructed. I’m surprised that the film/TV adaptation has never emerged, given the industry’s love for Victorian stories.

  3. I quite liked the film, very atmospheric, and I enjoyed the way it seemed to eschew realism for the slightly bonkers conspiracy-type plot. That said, I haven’t seen it for about 13 years, so…

    Mainly, it just reminds me I’ve been meaning to read the novel for 15+ years now! (Personally, I’ve taken to just calling them “novels” when in book form, because I tend to agree that “graphic novels” sounds like a self-justifying term, but “comics” often carries heavy connotations of superheroes and magazines.)

    1. Thanks Bob. I have to admit I’ve been thinking more about reading it, just that it’s a bit of a long haul thing so maybe one day. As for the film my feelings about it have definitely improved over time – who doesn’t like a good conspiracy – but by all accounts the book is about so much more.

      1. Yeah, it’s a huge doorstop of a tome. Of course, the fact it’s all pictures mean the size is a little deceptive if one’s subconsciously comparing it to prose, but still, I don’t imagine it’s a light read. In fact, I believe the guidebook to all its references and sources (which came out a couple of years ago) is the same size — “about so much more” indeed!

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