Mark Batalla of PixelDrip Gallery is back at 10YA with this reexamination of From Hell, the Jack the Ripper narrative based on the Alan Moore graphic novel.
We take for granted today’s oversaturation of comic book movies. After 1997’s Batman and Robin, film adaptations of comics had an uphill struggle to get greenlit. By 2001, the success of the grim and gritty approach taken by Blade andX-Men had once again made comic books attractive to Hollywood. And within comics, the ones that seemed perfect for this more mature outlook were the works of Alan Moore. From Hell was supposed to have been a big deal because it was the first of Moore’s material to be adapted to film. I don’t consider it to be his greatest work, so it makes for a great starting point.
Even without knowing about the source material, From Hell‘s concept was an interesting one. What if Jack the Ripper was part of a conspiracy made by the British royalty in order to prevent a scandal? On top of that, what if there was some supernatural element to the grisly murders? To this day, the identity of Jack the Ripper is still unknown, so plenty of creative licenses can be taken.
The Hughes Brothers aren’t the first people you’d think of to direct a period film, having done Menace II Society andDead Presidents before this. They do know their crime movies, and they were able to transfer that same atmosphere to 19th century London. The flaws can easily be overlooked due to a great ensemble cast consisting of Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Robbie Coltrane, Ian Holm, and Jason Flemyng.
Is It Better Or Worse Than I Remember?
I think From Hell holds up pretty well. Judged on its own merit without the comic, the film is a pretty decent period piece. Many movies that take place during the Victorian age focus on the aristocracy and not the horrible living conditions of the working class. Outside of films based on Charles Dickens’s work, From Hell is one of the few that does address the dirtier aspects of London. Even after knowing the twist, it’s interesting to see all the red herrings that the Hughes Brothers inserted into the movie. While the audience knows what Jack the Ripper wears, there are at least four characters that wear the same outfit at various points. And once all the clues are put together, Gull’s reveal makes sense within the context of the story.
I do feel that there’s something missing that keeps this movie from becoming a phenomenal watch. Don’t get me wrong, the tone is fine since there are quite a number of moments that feel downright tense or queasy. I think that problem comes from the editing. Even though this film contains nudity and gore due to the subject matter, at times it almost feels like it’s holding back when it comes to showing it. I’m really not a fun of all the rapid fire film cuts that occur while Gull is cutting open a victim. I can name a dozen horror movies with more explicit content.
All that being said, the film feels quite different once you’ve read the comic. The main difference between the two is the character perspective from which the story is told. The movie is a type of Doyle-esque mystery thriller with Frederick Abberline as Sherlock Holmes, Peter Godley as Watson, and Sir William Gull as Moriarty. In the comic, the audience is immediately told the identity of Jack the Ripper, as the story is told mostly from Gull’s point of view. Abberline has no talent for psychic visions, but instead gets assistance from fraudulent psychic Robert James Lees. Based on their appearance in the comic, Robbie Coltrane should have played Abberline and Johnny Depp should have been Lees. But then again, if given the chance to cast Depp, you’re probably not going to give him a bit part.
And then there’s the romance angle between Abberline and Mary Kelly that didn’t exist in the comic. It’s one of the problems I have with this film. Not the concept itself of those two attractive people wanting to bone each other, but rather how the relationship is shoehorned into the latter half of the movie. These two characters don’t share much screentime and yet we’re expected to treat Kelly as “the one that got away” and causes Abberline to sink into depression?
The aspects that make the film more enjoyable than the comic have to do with the clear way that everything is presented. Many of the comic’s jumps in time and space occur without provocation. For example, Gull has very vivid visions of the 20th century while he’s killing. It certainly isn’t helped by the woodcut-style artwork by Eddie Campbell, which are oftentimes too scratchy and murky. And once you get Moore started on writing about magic, it’s hard to get him to focus on anything else. The cab rides, which stretch for several pages, are nothing more than excuses for Moore to go on at length about the matter. Sometimes, you just want the story and nothing else. That’s what the film manages to do.
Despite the differences, the film still retains many of the broad story beats. It’s about as faithful to the source material as any film adaptation of Michael Crichton, John Irving, or Stephen King. And if you look at Jurassic Park, The Cider House Rules, or The Shining, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
From best to worst, I rate Alan Moore film as V for Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Is it just me or do half of Johnny Depp’s movies take place before the 20th century?
Does the film take place in England? Check. Did you cast Jason Flemyng? Check.
Heather Graham’s English accent is on par with Natalie Portman’s in V for Vendetta. That is to say, it’s not as grating to the ears as Winona Ryder’s in Dracula. And on another note, isn’t Graham simply the best when it comes to portraying sluts and whores?
It’s really hard to imagine grapes as being some type of bourgeois delicacy. Then again, it’s also hard to imagine a time without plumbing.
Yeah, chase that dragon! If Sherlock Holmes can use cocaine to solve mysteries, then Abberline can use opium.
That scene of Gull eating a rare steak while the camera cuts to his paintings of genetic freaks still gives me chills.
That Elephant Man sure is a looker.
Man, you think Ian Holm’s Bilbo was creepy when he tried to get the One Ring back? That’s nothing compared to his reveal as Jack the Ripper.
I’m interested in the choice of completely changing the tone by switching the protagonists for the movie. Dexter didn’t start airing until 2006, so watching a story from the serial killer’s point of view would have been a fresh experience. I guess all the Masonic and occult elements would keep Gull from becoming relatable to the audience. Well, that and his decent into madness via butchering the prostitutes.