It’s 1888 and someone is murdering prostitutes in the London district of Whitechapel, someone whose prolific and gratuitous knifework earns him the nickname Jack the Ripper. The eccentric Detective Abberline (Johnny Depp) heads the investigation and slowly uncovers a startling conspiracy that links the murders to shadowy Masonic rituals, cultic sacrifice, and the fate of the English crown. Meanwhile, Abberline befriends one of the Ripper’s intended victims (Heather Graham), but as the case drags on, comes to realize that it may take more than solving the case to save her life.
There are so many Jack the Ripper stories out there, you guys. Like that one video game where he fights Sherlock Holmes? Or that time he turns up in Babylon 5 as an alien space inquisitor? He gets around! But few attempts at the story have been quite as audacious and far-reaching as Alan Moore’s From Hell, an exhaustive 600-page monolith of a graphic novel that uses a widely-discredited conspiracy theory as a diving board into a pool of heady ideas on spirituality and culture, among many, many other things. Basically, From Hell is about everything there is in the world.
“I, uh… I flipped through it.”
This obviously presented a challenge for producer Don Murphy (Apt Pupil) who optioned the novel alongside fellow future squandered-opportunity League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Seeking to trim the narrative down to something movie-sized, Murphy found willing partners in Albert & Allen Hughes, whose own interest in the Ripper legends began as children watching a scary documentary on TV. With the Hughes Brothers came Johnny Depp, then still a few years from his international superstardom. Depp, thanks to his longtime collaboration with Tim Burton, seemed a natural fit for such a dark, gothic story, and the actor expressed interest in the project directly to the Brothers while meeting about another. It was a slam dunk to cast him as Abberline.
Less of a slam dunk was budget-friendly Prague where the production had committed to shoot. Unable to find locations that matched the Whitechapel district, the production had to build several complete city blocks on a soundstage, but while that construction wore on, the script was in a state of demolition. Two writers—Terry Hayes (Dead Calm) and Rafael Yglesias (Fearless)—each took a pass at paring Moore’s novel down, carving away with their pens and plucking out various unsavory tidbits like so many misplaced kidneys, entrails, and other Ripper metaphors, eventually draining Moore’s ocean of ideas down to a straightforward murder mystery (a major change, since the identity of the killer is known very early in the novel, and much of the story is told from his perspective.)
Alongside these cuts were two big additions. The first was Abberline’s psychic abilities—added, the Hughes Brothers claimed, to help make Abberline a more interesting lead. The second was a happy ending that leaves one of the Ripper’s real-life victims alive and well at the end of the story.
Absinthe: The fresher, cleaner, hallucinogenic way to wash up after a murder.
Released just a month after 9/11, From Hell failed domestically, not quite recouping its $35 million budget, likely due to a combination of a national distaste for violence in the wake of that tragedy and rumors that the film narrowly avoided a rare NC-17 for gore. The film fared better overseas and, now distanced from that unfortunate release date, found a healthy life on home video.
What Works Like Crazy
I’ll say this, the Hughes Brothers were certainly an inspired choice to get From Hell up on the screen. “The Menace II Society guys are doing a British true-crime horror story?” you might ask as so many did, but From Hell fit quite comfortably into the Hughes’s early target zone. Like Menace and Dead Presidents, From Hell is a story about class and violence in an oppressive urban environment. London in 1888 wasn’t South Central Los Angeles but it was deeply divided, hacked in two and shared by the wealthy upper class and a poor workforce simply fighting to exist. Forget paying bills; many Whitechapel residents wondered whether they could find a scrap to eat or a place to sleep not infested with crap, a reality largely created, encouraged, and maintained by the ruling class. That one of the wealthy elite might have descended into Whitechapel to literally hunt and carve up its residents for sport caught the public’s imagination partly because it appeared to be a cruel, even inevitable, result of that system. Life is cheap, but how cheap, exactly?
Recognizing the territory, the Hughes Brothers got the details right. The film is thick with moments and scenes that give Whitechapel—although clearly a soundstage—a real sense of living and breathing and struggling. Murder scenes are recreated exactly as they were found during the Ripper case and the shots are littered with little observations that speak to the difficulty of life in the Victorian era.
Freed from location shooting and the need for realism found in their earlier projects, the Brothers splattered the production with the kind of dreamy, gothic touches that had threatened to burst through in their earlier films. From Hell is all stark angles and filthy cobblestones and explosions of bright red color across gray-black stone. The style creates a nightmare London two stops over from Tim Burton’s Gotham City.
Unfortunately for Johnny Depp, this ain’t a Tim Burton film. Depp’s collaborations with Burton usually sprang from very smart, serviceable scripts, but From Hell leaves Depp to fend for himself in the face of some really baffling choices.
The Hughes Brothers were staring down the barrel of a massive source novel, and they responded by gutting it. Look, I get that. I support radical adaptations—I have to if I want to enjoy, say, Jaws—but the changes in From Hell altered the material dramatically, and created a slew of new problems that were then immediately mishandled.
To change the story from a sprawling exploration of the case to a whodunit procedural, the brothers had to shove the novel’s most interesting character—the killer—behind the curtain. OK, fair enough, but unfortunately that leaves the less-interesting Abberline to hog the stage, and instead of layering him with the complexity or detail he deserves as an actual living person who witnessed these events, they changed him into an opium-smoking psychic. They actually grafted superpowers onto a historical person. This is the cinema equivalent of taping Skeletor’s sword to your GI Joe—it’s all surface and it doesn’t fit anyway. (And incidentally, Cobra will just escalate and recruit Battle Cat.)
That surface approach to storytelling reappears throughout the movie. Abberline’s Scotland Yard sidekick Godley (Robbie Coltrane) quotes Shakespeare as his clumsy, artificial “quirk.” The would-be victims are basically one-word adjectives; there’s the grouchy one, the saintly one, the lesbian, and so on. If the movie can’t give the story the depth it deserves, then by God, nobody gets any!
All of this would be forgiven if the procedural paid off, but it totally doesn’t. In reality, the Ripper case was a fascinating study of the crossroads where modern forensic techniques clashed with archaic human prejudice, but that isn’t present in the film. Depp’s Detective Abberline more or less abandons real forensics and goes with his instincts. He could be the star of a show called Victorian Dream Cop. Abberline follows his gut and his visions to reveal the killer whose identity the audience guessed an hour earlier simply by playing “spot the movie star.” Spoiler Alert: If a major name is playing a bit part, there’s probably a payoff in the third act.
I disliked From Hell the first time I saw it, and the intervening years haven’t change my mind. When people use the old insult “all style, no substance,” this is the kind of film they’re talking about. The natural intrigue and real-life drama that accompanied the Ripper investigation is dumped out the back window to cram in more style and gore and mood. What’s worse, the film is riddled with bits borrowed from the novel or left over from previous script drafts that make no sense on their own. (Example: when the killer is revealed near the end, his eyes turn solid black, like a shark’s. A nod to the supernatural stuff jettisoned in the adaptation process? Who knows!)
Still, From Hell represents a remarkable step forward in the Hughes Brothers transformation from indie auteurs to genre stylists. It’s a very attractive film, if you find eviscerations and buckets of gore to be your kind of thing. The Whitechapel sets created for the film are moody and grim and make up for some of the story’s shortcomings. Some.
With From Hell, the Hughes Brothers altered their style of filmmaking, but it felt more like a natural evolution than an abrupt change–a step forward rather than a step sideways. Johnny Depp was reportedly impressed enough with the brothers that he offered them two of his most recent mega-budget projects, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and The Lone Ranger, although they were forced to decline. Even to this day, and even in spite of the film’s box office and critical disappointment, From Hell remains a calling card for the Hughes Brothers, but for me the film amounts to little more than a stab and a scream in the dark.
The Hughes Brothers Project
4. From Hell