Case #6: From Hell

This Week’s Case: From Hell

Released: 2001
Director(s): Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes
Starring: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane

Synopsis: Based on the comic by Allen Moore, From Hell is the story of an eccentric police inspector with psychic tendencies (Depp) who is placed in charge of capturing Jack the Ripper during the notorious murderer’s historic killing spree through London’s infamously lurid Whitechapel district. 

The Charges:

  • Not “scary”
  • Too “gory”
  • Historically inaccurate
  • Complete debasement of Allen Moore’s comic

The Defense:

This weekend, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is going to find American moviegoers literally vomiting cash into the metaphorical airsick bag that is Johnny Depp. Hell, maybe it will even see a boost in rentals for the film’s comparatively dour prequel, Chocolat. Knowing this and being the savvy opportunist that I need to be in order to (theoretically) raise the hit count on this column above the 15-person mark, I decided to write about Burton and Depp’s last collaboration, Sleepy Hollow. 

But then I watched it. 

Brass tacks: Sleepy Hollow and From Hell are, at least conceptually, the same film. Johnny Depp, the weird but endearing detective hunts down a culturally notorious murderer in a hip re-telling of an old story that’s been rehashed as an ingeniously mind-bending romp that comes off as an irritatingly mind-boggling flop.

Even so, From Hell is SO MUCH BETTER.

According to some viewers, however, it isn’t “scary” enough. I might understand this complaint if From Hell were framed as the kind of don’t look behind you, power of Christ compels you, Jack Nicholson hedge-maze chase film that people seem to want it to be. But it’s not. So, sucks to your figurative ass-mar. It’s a mystery. A detective film. A work of historical fiction. In no way does it even attempt to embody the archetypical tropes of a typical slasher, or even horror, film. One reason From Hell is so interesting is that, rather than attempt to form the Ripper story into a contemporary slasher movie (which could be easily accomplished), it chooses instead to create a larger mythology around the Ripper murders that involves more than just the visceral act of surgical mutilation and the subsequent thrill of the chase. Were From Hell just another t&a cut ‘em up, it would lose most, if not all, of the elements that make it original

“From Hell is too gory.” It’s a movie about JACK THE RIPPER. Compared to the actual murders, this film is the eating disorder episode of DeGrassi Junior High. You know, I try to be tolerant and listen to every side of everyone’s opinion, but Jesus Christ…I’m not saying a movie about one of the most brutal serial killer’s in the history of the world has to be violent but, if it is, I think it’s well within its rights. Last week, I was shopping at Target, and I heard a fellow customer remark, “Cinderella Man was good, but there was too much boxing.” From Hell is about Jack the Ripper. Accept it or watch Chocolat.

From Hell is historically inaccurate. That sentence wasn’t placed in belligerent mocking quotes because it’s true. Really, the entire film is “inaccurate” because the Ripper murders were, of course, never solved, whereas the filmic Ripper murders are assigned a clear explanation. And that’s awesome. Historical fiction’s entire purpose lies in taking the actual facts of a specific event and forming a fictional story around them that, though untrue, doesn’t directly contradict any of the event’s actual reality. Overall, From Hell does a marvelous job at playing this game from a staunch adherence to the nitty-gritty details of the Ripper case to even more arcane historiological Easter eggs – such as a brief cameo by John Merrick, the famed “elephant man,” who did actually reside in Whitechapel’s hospital during the murders.

The film’s engagement with actual history is, next to the visual style (discussed below), the most interesting thing about it. There are, however, certain visual and literal malapropisms that hurt the historical validity of the rest of the film. Some of these are merely annoying, like the fact that Heather Graham is, for the duration of the film, three times cleaner (not to mention hotter) than any of the 19th century East End’s actual whore-folk. But then there’s the requisite twist ending, which flies in the face of both history and common sense. It sucks. It’s ridiculous. It’s Hollywood.
From Hell’s historical inaccuracy, when abiding by the rules of historical fiction (like, and I’m just throwing this out there, don’t completely change a pivotal fact just to appease audience expectations) is intelligent and engaging. When it’s just kind of making shit up because, you know, it feels like it, it’s horribly aggravating, but only because, for so much of the film, the former prevails. 

I am thoroughly convinced that there’s no way to completely and successfully condense any of Allen Moore’s graphic novels into a single cohesive film that will even come close to matching the original comic medium. They’re too complex for two hours and they’re too smart for Hollywood. That isn’t to say that a film derived from Moore’s writing can’t be a good film in its own right. I’ve read From Hell. Does the movie suck in comparison? My god, yes. But it wasn’t made as a point of comparison. And even if it had been, it isn’t the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen adaptation, which, even filmically speaking, sits somewhere between Baby Geniuses and the Ebola virus.

The one thing even the bad reviews seem to agree on is that From Hell is visually stunning. It’s an extremely moody movie that’s both tonally consistent and cinematographically beautiful. The editing is super keen and the brothers Hughs do a marvelously good job in every facet of their role as co-directors.

Many “clever” reviewers made the wholly unpredictable joke that the film From Hell literally came From Hell. I’m not closing with that because I have some infinitely more clever and scathing retort to lob back at them. I just think it’s kind of a stupid thing say. 

So there.

Written by Matt Finley

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