RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 12: Albert and Allen Hughes’ “From Hell” (2001)


The Players…

Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane and Ian Richardson.

The Plot…

It’s London in the late 1800’s, and a vicious murderer is on the loose. He preys on the women of the night, cornering them, slitting their throats, eviscerating them. There is no clear motive. There are no proper clues. Save a few odd letters from the ghoul that taunt the authorities, the deeds might as well been committed by a specter. Scotland Yard charges one of their best, brightest and rather unconventional inspectors to the case. He is put to task investigating these grisly murders revolving around a new, different and baffling breed of criminal altogether: a serial killer.

The Rant…

In college, I came across a novel that I found myself tearing into from the prologue. It was The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Perhaps a few of you know of it. I lapped the thing up. A serial killer mystery in late 1800’s New York, chock full of seamy atmosphere, proto-noir, remarkable characters and sense of urgency that if the killer could not be found (by employing the woefully primitive forensics of the day) in time, a new victim would surface at every chapter turn. Needless to say, great book. Read it like three times in a year. It even had Teddy Roosevelt as a minor player. Really.

I’ve read other serial killer novels that also took my fancy. The Silence of the Lambs, of course and its prequel, Red Dragon. Robert Bloch’s Psycho. Some others tales of no consequence. I’m not exactly a voracious reader of the oeuvre, but the notion of the hunt appeals to me. The hunt for clues and the hunt for the man. And it doesn’t hurt when the stakes are high. A trail of bodies that’ll lead to an even longer trail if something isn’t done to stop the nutjob with the meathook and daddy issues. Like I said, high stakes. Makes for a good mystery.

I guess it’s a foregone conclusion that you know the unsolved Jack the Ripper mystery is the fountainhead where all such tales of grue flow. It’s the original cold case file. A spit back I covered a film analyzing the hunt for one of Jack’s contemporaries, the Zodiac. That film adaptation was a clean, clear, concise and equally gripping story as any aligned with the Ripper mythos. But that’s just the thing. No other serial killer, real or from an author’s imagination has created a mythos; a set of attitudes and tenets based on the romanticized notion of what a killer could be. The closet relative is f*cking Dracula. And the Ripper was indeed a real person, but somehow not as scary as Arthur Leigh Allen (or whoever the Zodiac was—is—whatever).

Why does the mystique of this case endure? Is it because the Ripper case was never solved? Well, neither was the Zodiac. Is it because of the gruesomeness of Jack’s slaughter? Jeffery Dahmer’s acts were far more perverted. Is it the time and place? There was the Devil in the White City, HH Holmes, who worked in a similar time and space while Jack picked off his vics, and Holmes had dozens more than the Ripper’s. I say none of that matters. What really matters is that there’s a great story behind Jack the Ripper, real and/or imagined. A story only history has steeped into the collective memory of all of us (hell, it even popped up in an episode of the original Star Trek). We’re talking staying power. Enough to entrance moviemakers time and again…

The Story…

London, 1888. The Whitechapel district. The Tenderloin of the seamier, skuzzy, sh*thole asscrack of Albion where the depraved come to practice their trades, learn them or simply succumb to the filth that just happens to be hangin’ ‘round. Because that’s all any of it is good for. You wanna good screw? Go elsewhere. You want to get f*cked, get thee to Whitechapel. You’ll blow your load and lose your billfold on so much sh*t tub booze and honeyed words from the local, willing bang-tails. Maybe you’ll even be relieved of the end of your nose if you’re so fortunate. Good times, good times.

For some better times than others, for there is a killer on the loose in Whitechapel. And not your average cutthroat out for money or fulfilling a vendetta. No. This ghoul works in and is of the shadows, snapping his victims out of the dreary, sordid streets of the demimonde and eviscerating them, bloody and savage as if God wasn’t watching. His works of butchery are found to have a certain grace however. These aren’t the knife gouges of your common street tough, but rather concise work of a skilled surgeon. The victims bodies have been relieved of their innards, disemboweled by the likes of an artisan, and the focus of the incisions being of the genitalia.

Despite the grisly nature of the crimes, they don’t really draw much concern from the denizens of Whitechapel, you see. The victims have all been prostitutes, common corner-walkers. Whores. Transient wayward women who come and go in the distract as the gardyloos run down the gutter. What’s another dead trollop in a neighborhood awash with depravity?

A mystery, for one. And a fever dream for one Inspector Frederick Abberline (Depp) who can’t just let such cases go. It’s a curious case, one bets, but not nearly as curious as how Abberline goes about his detecting. He has “visions” of sorts, aided from endless nights chasing the dragon at a secret opium den or alternately chasing the green fairy with a bottle of absinthe, a few well dripped baubles of laudanum and nice hot bath. He “sees” the crimes happen before they happen, but the details are always hazy. The Ripper case is a particularly juicy one to bite into, as it appears to point in a pentagram-like compass rose to many halls of the British social structure.

A political case, you say? What does the insane practices of diseased butcher have to do with the social climes of Victorian England? Abberline wants to know, needs to know. Away from his usual haunts and mostly lucid, Abberline realizes he needs and inside man within the halls of Whitechapel to follow down a lead. More accurately, he needs an inside woman, whom he finds in the form of the rabble rousing Mary Kelly (Graham), who was close to several of the Ripper’s victims. She knows the streets even grimier than what Abberline ever accessed, and if these murders are not random, not quite sociopathic, but political in nature, why, the Queen herself would be up in arms. The slaying of whores as remonstration up against a political identity that has served the Empire well for generations?

Some are not willing to let go of this case for many reasons. But Abberline has only one: to stop a madman…

The Breakdown…

Heh. This was a fun one.

Remember the old 1985 movie Clue? That was also a fun one, and not just because it was funny. It was based on a game after all, and the story kind of flowed out like a game, tongues firmly in cheek. From Hell has that same vibe, but without the humor. No matter, that. But there is a game afoot. Let’s case this joint.

The opening montage is just great. Everything you need to establish the atmosphere is put into place. Snuggle up, we’re gonna be here awhile. Better get comfy. It’s sometimes a bit of a challenge to set the stage for a “period” film without resorting to stereotyping. Since this movie was based on a graphic novel, such staging used it not only reflective of the comic but how the story flows as well. From Hell has good story flow from the get go. Like I said before, the first 12 minutes. Got my attention.

The camera work here sort of plays out like a graphic novel, too. Very cool editing, deliberate and sound. I’m assuming that From Hell is not as immediately recognizable as, say, Watchmen in the Alan Moore catalogue (I’m noting this as a sort of PSA for the under informed). But it is noteworthy in how exhaustively researched it was with the Ripper case. The framing of shots here flow in a panel-to-panel progression. I find that neat. Here’s a comic book adaptation with a high sense of style.

But wait, there’s The Standard to follow…

We got highly stylized everything here. The costumes, the acting, the staging, the lousy accents (seriously, Depp and Graham would’ve fared better speaking in their natural voices. They both sound like outcasts from a Renaissance Faire), the period atmosphere is all a bit overwrought, sometimes bordering on cartoonish. I know this was supposed to be a comic adaptation, but there’s nothing deliberately comical about the story. However the Hughes’ bros were never shy about being stylistic. Who says you gotta stay in Compton in order to flash violent flair? Then again, the gore in From Hell can be stupid at times, comical. There’s a balance the Hughes’ are trying to reach here, between mystery and historical fiction (as well as probably trying to do Moore justice) but it’s barely left of center.

There’s a touch too much melodrama in From Hell, which can make the film feel hollow here and there, like the balloon might be popped at any moment. Again I know it’s supposed to be a period piece, but that doesn’t mean we gotta get all stereotypificated here. You can safely lay that pratfall at the feet of our leads. There was nary a hint of chemistry between Depp and Graham. Depp’s Inspector Abberline feels as if he’s spent way too many nights “chasing the dragon,” a slave to his “visions.” He often seems on the verge of boredom, despite the grisly urgency of the case. And there is urgency; the Hughes’ keep things moving at a good clip with very little slushiness. What slushiness remains is provided by the caricature Graham provides. The streetwise hooker with a heart of gold is an all too common device, which in the right hands works really well. Um, it didn’t work with Graham. Along with that accent, bleah. Mary Kelly and her brood just showed up in the film to slow it down.

On yet another hand (and here goes that durn balance trying to get established) the interplay of the characters, especially the supporting cast (and an exclamation point to Ian Holm whose laid back presence throughout the film really hit the finale home) created a nice Upstairs, Downstairs dichotomy going on. There is this subplot of class warfare in the movie I didn’t particularly take a shine to, but it did make for a pretty nifty take on how the other half lives in late Victorian London. Here the balance was achieved.

Upside: the movie’s a good mystery. Downside: I think I figured it out too soon. There was an element of predictability in From Hell, albeit a small one. I’m also kind of on the fence of having the mystery solved. According to my records—*rifles through pages*—the Ripper case was never closed. It’s probably the longest cold case ever. The again, it’s quite hard to gage the film version against the comic. I never really read the book so I can’t tell if I’m ahead or behind the curve as plotting goes. I know Moore was writing historical fiction, but one of the greatest aspects of the Ripper case is that was never solved, thus adding to the mystery and mystique. Wrapping it up robs the story of some its punch.

Despite all my carps, I did dig the movie. From Hell was fun. What’s neat about this film is how easily it makes the mystery aspect interactive. The audience sniffs for clues as Depp sniffs for clues (note: in Whitechapel, clues smell a lot like beer farts). It uncurls, twists and turns again as we scratch our collective heads with an air of…well, whodunit? It plays out to the cinematic version of a game of Ocarina of Time. Not too hard, not too easy. Goldilocks zone. Nice balance actually achieved there,  too, perhaps what the Hughes’ were aiming for along the way.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go chase me some fairies (Zelda or absinthe reference? YOU DECIDE).

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s got a pleasurable charm for the graphic subject matter. But at its core, for all the gore and sociopolitical folderol, From Hell‘s a good, old-fashioned whodunit. One plus two plus one plus one; that’s six. 😉

The Musings…

  • I love the sound effect when the brougham’s steps are deployed. It cleverly replicates the sound of…well, a blade being unsheathed.
  • “You won’t get any sense out of her.” “I’m used to that.” Both smirks are priceless.
  • In college, I was vice prez for our chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. Most of its rituals came from those of the Freemasons. I learned that despite the accolades the Masons earned in helping found our country, a lot of their sh*t stank. Perhaps the mention of it in the movie is a warning to both invest in and suspect an outside, secret belief system. In simpler terms: don’t be quick to trust anyone simply because they have “connections.”
  • A lot can be done on a small movie lot. If this sounds like a small anti-CGI screed, it’s not. I just appreciate efficiency in cinema in all its guises.
  • “Let me commune with T.S. Eliot!” Ah, the absinthe speaks.

The Next Time…

Linear. Vertical interval. ABS-EBU embedded with digital audio. Burnt-in. CDI. MIDI.

You know, types of Timecode.

Leave a Reply