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: ***

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

When it’s on: Sunday, 21 December (8.00 pm)
Channel: E4
IMDb Link

Whilst not a Christmas film, Edward Scissorhands seems an entirely appropriate choice for the season, with its snowy visuals, fairy tale influences and a dazzling score from Danny Elfman that sounds like the accompaniment to every child’s sense of wonder on the morning after Santa came…

At the time, many films by Tim Burton had some sort of Christmassy feel; I’m thinking specifically of Batman Returns, which was like the superhero’s Yuletide tale, and if it hadn’t come after this then it would have appeared staggeringly original, those music box Elfman overtures and Gothic overtones. But Edward did come beforehand, and it stands as an early classic. It’s also a deeply personal film, Burton’s feelings of alienation as a youngster represented by the young man who can literally not get close to other people thanks to having razor sharp scissors where his hands ought to be.

The film takes place in an apparently typical midwestern suburbia, though look a little closer and you’ll notice that it’s entirely stylised, a study in pastel houses, dads leaving at the same time for work in their primary coloured cars, leaving bored housewives to gossip and long for excitement. The only thing that’s out of place is the ruined castle atop a dark and overrun hill on the very edge of town, like a wart disturbing an otherwise perfect neighbourhood. Nobody notices it. It hasn’t been visited in years, allowing its sole occupant to eke out a lonely existence. That is until a kindly Avon lady (Dianne Wiest) visits on spec and takes pity on Edward (Johnny Depp), who despite his initially abhorrent appearance turns out to be a gentle and innocent soul. She takes him back to her house and tries to fit him into ‘normality’, only Edward learns his differences to everyone else means that can never fully happen. At first treated like an adorable novelty, particularly as the housewives discover his scissor hands make him an expert in topiary and hair cutting, he ultimately becomes a pariah after a series of unfortunate events. Only Wiest’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), sees beyond the surface to fall in love with the man beneath.

The best bits in Edward Scissorhands are those that tell the tale of his ‘birth’. Edward happens to have been created rather than born. His ‘father’ was an inventor, a creator of robots who resolves to turn a machine for slicing vegetables into a real boy. In a series of flashbacks, Edward thinks back to his development, his time with the kindly inventor who, when not making body parts for him, reads poetry and the rules of etiquette to him and helps form his personality. In a casting decision of true mastery, the inventor is played by Vincent Price in his last major film role, a ten-minute performance of complete sublimity in which the horror Don gets to show off his softer side, then the bathetic tragedy of his fatal heart attack before he can complete Edward and leaving him without hands.

From channelling Frankenstein, Burton’s tale moves into Disney’s Beauty and the Beast territory as Edwards stares longingly at the voluptuous Kim, who of course is hooked up with the ‘Gaston’ boyfriend Jim, as played by Anthony Michael Hall (a nice bit of casting for those who recall Hall’s nerd in Weird Science). As Kim starts to reciprocate Edward’s feelings, jock Jim turns to anger and outright jealousy, setting him up for a fall that will only stir the latent suspicion in this stranger.

But before the romantic storyline kicks in, Edward Scissorhands plays as a broad satire while he attempts to conform into society. Dining with his adoptive family, Edward attempts to eat dinner, finding his scissors aren’t even good for levering a single pea into his mouth, Getting dressed is another exercise in futility; he can only put on a pair of trousers by carefully easing his blades into the belt loops and stepping into the legs. It’s funny, but Depp has the talent to give his character a sense of real pathos, even when he demonstrates why a waterbed is clearly the least appropriate mattress for a man with scissors for hands. While his new family are all well played, with Wiest at her most lovely and Alan Arkin refusing to break with routine for his unusual houseguest, there’s good value from the housewives, especially Kathy Baker’s bawdy Joyce, who openly flirts with Edward before jumping on him, which precipitates the beginning of his fall.

Edward Scissorhands was nominated for one Oscar for make-up, those scissor designs from Stan Winston that Depp uses to great effect by chopping them together gently when he’s nervous. It deserved more recognition for its design work, however. Edward’s haircutting leads to a series of creations straight out of Dr Seuss’s imagination, made all the more poignant when he’s literally run out of town, pursued by people wearing the very same crazy styles he shaped for them earlier in the film, the bushes he cut into dinosaurs and dolphins now sinister silhouettes.

The film has rightly taken on something approaching cult status in the years since its release, though it was a minor box office at the time. A dance production for the stage developed by Matthew Bourne has since become a regular turn, with a series of shows taking place at Sadler’s Wells at this very moment.

Edward Scissorhands: ****

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

When it’s on: Thursday, 10 May (11.15 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

And there’s me thinking that Sweeney Todd was a real person! He started out as a character in a penny dreadful called The String of Pearls (serialised in 1846-47), and quickly became the subject of stage plays. Over time, promoters hyped the story as a recounting of the facts, or at least based on real-life, and it’s always possible that Victorian London could very well have witnessed such monstrosities (one just has to read Dickens to tap into hints of the ghoulish goings on beneath the surface).

Various film versions followed before a production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street was given the green light. Once Tim Burton was attached to the project, the director’s usual muses – Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter – also got involved, with questions asked of what the film might amount to. Burton’s films had previously contained musical sequences but he’d never directed an out-and-out musical. Depp and Bonham Carter hadn’t sung professionally before. Fortunate then that the result was a bloody marvel.

It turns out, all misgivings aside, that Burton was the perfect choice to helm Sweeney Todd. Bringing his now traditional Gothic sensibility to the look of the film, the camera prowls along London’s inky streets, all shadows, swarthy characters and a den for dark deeds. Every corner suggests some awful menace. The brighter areas emerge as little better. The film’s patrician character, Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), is corrupt. Years before, he set false charges against a barber named Benjamin Barker (Depp) because of his lust for his wife. Barker was duly sentenced to a life sentence of hard labour in Australia, but now he’s back, seeking revenge under his new identity of Sweeney Todd. Soon settling back into his old barber shop, with the help of Mrs Lovett (Bonham Carter), who sells ‘the worst pies in London’ from the store below, Tood is reunited with his chosen instruments of vengeance, his straight razors, and the quest for retribution begins.

The script for Sweeney Todd picks and chooses from Sondheim’s musical, honing in on the revenge narrative and making a bee-line for the gorier aspects of the story. The blood-letting, when it comes, is horribly real. Sweeney Todd earns its 18 Certificate, a risky decision on the part of the production that pays off because the gloves come off in terms of what it allows itself to show, which is just about everything. There must have been a conscious moment of decision at some point early in the film’s development – hey, this is a story about a murderer, whose victims are then baked into pies and everyone loves the pies – where they had to choose whether to treat the material lightly or give it the full gory treatment. They went for the latter. Good call.

A regular actor for Burton, Depp again underwent extensive make-up processes to transform himself into the white faced, murderous ghoul that is Sweeney Todd. In a role utterly without cuteness, he’s the ideal man for the job, suffusing Todd with nothing but the pure drive for vengeance. It obsesses him to the point that he barely functions when not acting out his murders. He also has little but hate for London – early in the film, as he’s sailing into the city with Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bowers), both sing about it, but whereas Hope’s verses are filled with optimism, Todd imagines a hole in the world like a great black pit, inhabited by the vermin of the world.

Once one gets over the channelling of David Bowie in his singing voice, Depp’s performance can be relished as a cracker stuffed with malevolence and moral emptiness. Better still is Helena Bonham Carter as the tragic Mrs Lovett. Pathetically imagining a future for herself and Todd (realised in a segment that has the unlikely pair on a beach holiday – Depp has never looked more depressed), she becomes his willing partner in crime when she agrees to use his victims as ingredients, which has the unexpectedly happy side effect of making her pies not just edible, but cornering the market.

It’s all going to come to a sticky end, of course, but before that there’s blood, blood and more blood, coursing through the credits and from Todd’s grisly barber’s chair, which is fitted with a special trapdoor he can operate with a switch that turns the former patrons into meat pie fillings. The dull thud of their bodies onto the stones below is as sickening as any number of cut throats.

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street: ****