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From Hell is that sort of odd 2000s conundrum: a self-serious historical thriller with the editing style of a teen slasher pic. I can’t defend Heather Graham’s difficulty with a cockney accent, but I do have a soft spot for the flashy cuts and bright red blood. And of course, Jack the Ripper.
Ripper, not Slasher
I – like most teenage girls – saw this movie because of Johnny Depp. In the theater, I was impressed: it was really bloody, and pretty scary, and kind of sexy (is that weird? it’s a little weird, but it is). How’d I convince my parents to let me see this? They’re laughing as though they ever had the ability to stop me (Honestly, do they even know I saw this in the theater? Prob not).
However, let that not turn you away from From Hell. It’s not meant to be a shocker, though it has its moments. It’s not meant to be a slasher, though the Ripper is hard to deny as the classic “type:” violent, a little unhinged, mad about sex, etc. In fact, for all its effort to be a straightforward period film, From Hell is much more the product of pop-culture horror like Scream, Thir13een Ghosts (I’ll keep going back to that gem, I promise), with a dash of Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. What The Hughes Brothers truly succeed in doing with their version of Jack the Ripper is demonstrating how truly unoriginal our concepts of big bad monsters really are. They all stem from the Ripper. So why not make give the Ripper a dose of contemporary slasher appeal? Hormones, gushing blood, slap dash editing, and all.
Not Feminist, Not Bad
In case my penchant for finding the feminism in the most foul of horror material fools you, even I cannot call From Hell a feminist film. Its women are props – literal subjects to be dismantled on camera and off. Heather Graham’s Mary Kelly has personality, but is little more than a love interest for Depp’s Inspector Aberline. Her “final girl” -isms are available, but basically abandoned in favor of Depp’s fantasies. They are victims, these women; every one of them.
But so was the history of the thing. The nameless Ripper tore up unsuspecting (or perhaps very suspecting) prostitutes, and the newspapers sent it up like tabloid fodder. In this way, I think From Hell very well captures the hyper-masculine, misogynistic tone of the times, and of the act. Sure, a Jack the Ripper story from the women’s’ perspective would be fantastic. But the dangers of men and their social rule is what’s truly frightening about this “real-life” story. Women were the property of men – in mind, body, and spirit. That’s adequately, and violently, depicted here.
Dissection and Display
I’m not squeamish (you don’t say) and the most alluring part of From Hell, for me, is the medical drama of it all.
The real life history of medical theatre is fascinating. Theatre being the absolute correct word, as it is wholly performative, doctors and surgeons presenting their skill to the masses (with little to sometimes no regard for the privacy – or safety – of the patient).
In considering the Ripper, one has to consider every theory that has emerged in the case. Which, in a time before DNA and basic sanitary procedures, is too many for any one film to deal with. From Hell hones in on a select few, namely the idea that a surgeon would have had the skill, knowledge, and tools necessary to complete the gruesome dissections.
The display of those dissections on film is stunningly effective. Whether it be a shot of the Ripper working with vigor on a body from behind (a ripping, sawing effect), or the gentle taps of a lobotomy from inside a mental hospital, the violence is made visible and public.
Most memorable, perhaps, is not a Ripper victim at all, but John Merrick. The Elephant Man makes an appearance in From Hell,
stood on a pedestal in the theater and made available for every male eye in the audience to see. The gross display of it is enough to make your skin crawl. Even more, the looks of fascination and desire in the men’s glances. This is a world where the public is unafraid to look with menace at an ill man. A public that satisfies itself in the ogling of women cut-up in alleyways, published in the morning paper.
The Fun Stuff
Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings, The Fifth Element, Alien) is in fine, fine form.
As with any attempt to adapt Alan Moore to the screen, there are bound to be dissenters. But this is, I think, a really well accomplished and effective work. From Hell the graphic novel is most certainly a longer, more detailed work than is presented here. However, if you’ve seen Watchmen, then you know translating Moore’s work frame for frame can be a tedious practice. From Hell preserves a strong sense of character and language, and the brutality of the black and white violence drawn on the page.
J. Depp was on a bit of horror kick in the early aughts. You’ll find him in Polanski’s underrated The Ninth Gate, Secret Window (one of the better Stephen King adaptations), and Sleepy Hollow (’99, but close enough). It was a good time for Depp. Could we get back there?
If You Like It, Watch:
Zodiac – One of David Fincher’s best, and one of the best films about a real-life serial killer, period. It captures something particular about society at the end of the 60’s, much in the way From Hell captures a truth about the nature of public display in Victorian London.
The Elephant Man– John Merrick is touched upon briefly here, but he’s the whole story in this “bio” pic from David Lynch. I put bio in air quotes, because nothing from Lynch should ever be trusted as true biography or true anything. It’s precisely what makes him so great.
Penny Dreadful – Confession: I have just discovered Penny Dreadful in the last month. My bad. It’s on Netflix now and I’ve consumed three seasons in about two weeks time. If you’re interested in the attitudes of London at the dawn of the 20th century – or simply in good Victorian storytelling, in general, this is it. Re: women and feminism – Eva Green’s leading character is everything the women in From Hell are not allowed to be.
The Fourth Kind (Click for trailer)