From Hell (2001): Albert and Allen Hughes Conventional Gothic Thriller, Starring Johnny Depp

Venice Film Festival (World Premiere)–Neither chilling as a good horror film, nor convincing as an intense psychological spin, Albert and Allen Hughes‘s From Hell is a rather conventional gothic yarn about Jack the Ripper, history’s first, still most notorious serial killer in history, who terrorized London circa 1888.

Though lenser Peter Deming’s visuals are intriguing, the movie further suffers from an eccentric but uncompelling performance by a heavy-accented Johnny Depp, as an opium-inhaling inspector, and lack of chemistry between him and Heather Graham, as the Irish prostitute who helps him resolve the mystery.

Based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel, the film lacks an interesting perspective or fresh angle to engage the viewers in a saga that has assumed mythical proportions.

Mixed to negative film reviews will relegate this Fox release, which world premiered to mostly indifferent response at the Venice Festival, to the status of a superbly mounted curiosity item, likely to yield mild box-office returns, both domestically and internationally, with brighter prospects in ancillary venues.

The talented Hughes brothers, still best known for Menace II Society, one of the most auspicious American debuts over the past decade, seem to have lost their verve after their first two pictures; the other being Dead Presidents. Their hardly-seen, highly problematic Sundance documentary, American Pimp, was charged by some critics as an ambiguous, borderline glorification of the dubious titular figure. Similarly, new film lacks a distinct point of view to shed light on the legendary killer, who has intrigued numerous filmmakers. The unidentified murderer has been a screen fixture since the 1920s, including various versions of The Lodger (one by Hitchcock), James Hill’s A Study in Terror (1965), Bob Clark’s Murder By Decree (1979, with Christopher Plummer and James Mason), Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time (also 1979), and countless TV movies, both Brit and American.

A period piece set in Victorian England is not exactly expected from the Detroit-born, L.A.-based twin helmers, best-known for making gritty urban dramas. But it’s not really a point of departure for the Hugheses, who have themselves described From Hell as “a ghetto story, with poverty, violence, and corruption, except that the particular characters happen to be white….but all poor people have the same problems.” This approach might have been the source of the problem: As the gore escalates and grisly street crimes increase, the violence and special effects often function as external elements to an essentially weightless film.

The tale begins with a caption, “One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the Twentieth Century.” The title, From Hell, refers to the return address on a letter penned by Ripper. Central narrative thread is a clique of five impoverished prostitutes, forced to share a desperate friendship, as their ranks are terrorized by a gruesome murderer on the loose.

First reel depicts the shabby existence and near-starvation of hookers Mary Kelly (Graham), Kate Eddowes (Sharp), Liz Stride (Lynch), Dark Annie Chapman (Cartlidge), and Polly (Apsion), earning a meager living by selling their bodies to a society that dishonors yet feeds upon them. Representing–and owning–nothing of value to Victorian society, they are constantly threatened. In one of the film’s haunting scenes, which describes their unrelentingly harsh cycle of survival, the women, unable to afford a bed, awaken after a fitful night’s sleep tied together on a bench. The next morning, the landlord unties the rope and sends them back to the streets, where they must earn money for the coming night.

Tale’s chief figure is Inspector Fred Abberline (Depp), the lone authority concerned with protecting the prostitutes, but viewed by everyone else as utterly expendable. Deeply aggrieved, Abberline, is tormented by unescapable memories from his past in which he lost his wife and child. Seeking temporary relief in opium, his addiction heightens spells of clairvoyance that result in bright insights into the slaughters but also occasional incapacity to work.

Following previous films, which have introduced the character of Sherlock Holmes and fictional encounters between him and Jack the Ripper, From Hell centers on Abberline as yet another flamboyant if flawed hero. Using mostly intuition and unorthodox methods, Abberline is reminiscent of the protagonists of classic nineteenth century novels. Here, Abberline is aided in his troubled investigation by the imposing Sgt. Godley (Coltrane), a straightforward Scottish cop and loyal friend, who draws conclusion from concrete evidence, such as the murderer’s particular tools and eyewitness accounts.

Story unravels as an alleged conspiracy that involved England’s highest echelons. Indeed, Abberline’s efforts are soon thwarted by superiors who are more interested in sweeping the crimes under the rug than finding the killer. The sole exception is the renowned Sir William Gull (Holm), a physician to the royal family who’s powerful enough to assist the shunned inspector. Holm’s superb performance makes his scenes with Abberline quite captivating, and they’re further aided by the facts dispensed by him, such as the creepy notion that Jack the Ripper possesses expert medical knowledge and surgical skills which he applies to his gruesomely bizarre ritualistic murders.

For a while, the movie gets a much needed shot of energy through the exposition of a Crown conspiracy, with the filmmakers drawing implicit parallels between Britain’s Jack the Ripper and America’s JFK assassination. With Gull’s advice, Abberline deduces that the killings are part of a menacing conspiracy involving the Order of the Freemasons, an enigmatic, cult-like organization, which presumably acts on behest of the monarchy itself (The Freemasons have been subject of numerous conspiracy theories, due to their mysterious initiation ceremonies and oaths of secrecy).

Unfortunately, despite an ambitious goal to offer poignant commentary on the sharply stratified Victorian society, From Hell relates the Jack Ripper saga from the outside, seldom illuminating the intricacies of Brit society’s power structure and social hierarchy. Interestingly, From Hell contains a scene with the “Elephant Man,” John Merrick, which occupied the center of David Lynch’s superb black-and-white film, about the hideously deformed man who was embraced by the hypocritical upper class. One wonders how a director like Lynch, whose elegy to the freakishness of the human condition was disguised as a piece of Victorian morality theater, would have handled the notorious Jack the Ripper.

Depp is a gifted performer who has specialized in playing eccentric outsiders’ roles, but, arguably, From Hell would have been more forceful if Jude Law, the original choice for the part, would have played the inspector. Graham is also disappointing as the Irish prostitute, though her peers are vividly captured in brief scenes by Sharp, Lynch, Cartlidge, and Apsion.

The $35 million production was shot in the outskirts of Prague, standing in for the Whitechapel district. Behind the camera crew is top notch, including cinematographer Deming (Lynch’s Lost Highway), costume designer Kym Barrett (The Matrix), and special effects supervisor George Gibbs (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

Considering that the first screen treatment of Jack the Ripper goes back to the silent era, The Lodger (1926), there’s strong reason to believe that there will be other versions of this notorious serial killer yarn that, among other cinematic functions, is directly responsible for such horror masterpieces as Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.

Credits

Pro co: A Twentieth Century Fox presentation of an Underworld Pictures production.
US dist: Fox
Int’l dist: Fox Int’l
Exec prods: Amy Robinson, Thomas M. Hammel, Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Prods: Don Murphy, Jane Hamsher
Scr: Terry Hayes, Rafael Yglesias, based on the novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
Cinematographer: Peter Deming
Prod des: Martin Childs
Eds: Dan Lebenthal, George Bowers
Music: Trevor Jones
Main cast: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, Ian Richardson, Katrin Cartlidge, Susan Lynch, Lesley Sharp, Annabelle Apsion