[box cover]

From Hell

Fox Home Entertainment

Starring Johnny Depp, Heather Graham,
Robbie Coltrane, and Ian Holm

Written by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias,
from a graphic novel written by Alan Moore
and illustrated by Eddie Campbell

Directed by The Hughes Brothers


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Review by D.K. Holm                    


I. Intro: The Ripper Kills Again

From late August to early November in 1888, five prostitutes were killed in London's impoverished, overcrowded East End. The murders are attributed to a person or persons given the name Jack the Ripper.

And that is about the extent of our knowledge.

No person was ever convicted of the Ripper slayings. No one suspect has been definitively heralded as the actual killer. Instead, questions plague the subject, from the true number of victims to the extent of police understanding of the crime's ramifications.

The slayings do, however, provide an entrée into Victorian society. Contemporary citizens were as fascinated with the case as their descendants. As Richard D. Altick has shown in his book Victorian Studies in Scarlet, Victorian society was unduly preoccupied with murder. Beneath the staid, prim, controlled surface of Victorian society seethed unseemly passions, given vent in one phase by the numerous prank letters sent to the police and others during and after the Ripper case, little Midlands ministers pausing before dinner to sit down and compose gruesome, taunting, anonymous "Ripper" letters to the cops. As Altick writes:

Seen a little hazily through the necessarily evasive language of contemporary newspaper reports and now with clinical explicitness in recent books, the East End of London in the late eighties, the haunt of the most degraded prostitutes conceivable, takes its place with the vile Edinburgh tenements of the twenties. Once again there is no evidence that in its fear-filled preoccupation with the mystery of the silent, elusive maniacal killer, the late Victorian public recognized the wider social implications of the case.

But with its fog-bound, twisting, cobblestone streets, the East End and its denizens are a natural for the movies. Though there have been numerous Ripper movies of one kind or another, made by participants ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Michael Caine, From Hell is surely one of the most technically proficient ever made. As a commercial Hollywood enterprise, the Hughes Brothers' film is top notch. In a movie that logic would dictate a cast of English actors, Johnny Depp, as Inspector Abberline, and Heather Graham, as the top hooker on the Ripper's hit list, are fine. Peter Deming's cinematography is superb, especially the process shots that recreate the London skyline in Prague. Viewers unfamiliar with the case will find it to be historically accurate and may even find themselves fooled by the whodunit aspects of the film.

But those who know and love the source book, writer Alan Moore and illustrator Eddie Campbell's lengthy, black and white graphic novel, From Hell, are going to be sorely disappointed. Once again, Hollywood has gone to the trouble of paying for a literary adaptation and then basically thrown out everything but the title. Though others might be inclined to give this movie four stars solely on its technical and commercial merits, the responsible reviewer who knows and loves the original novel must come down on the side of the text.


II. Jack the Ripper Conspiracy Theories

The first victim, Mary Ann Nichols, also known as Polly, was killed on the night of August 31st. Her estranged husband identified her corpse the next day. Though there had been other strange slayings in London of late, for some reason this murder seized the public imagination, especially when on September 8th, Annie Chapman was found slain. The Ripper would go on to commit three more killings, two in one night, and the final death, of Mary Jane Kelly, in early November, the culmination of an increasingly brutal spree of murders. There are about 10 other "non-canonical" victims whom some critics attribute to the Ripper, but these are the deaths that figure in the book and movie of From Hell.

Given that the Ripper was never found, speculation, informed and otherwise, has filled the void left by the killer's absence. In the early days of Ripperlogy, the suspects tended to be people who were actually arrested at the time, such as John Pizer who was assumed to a suspect dubbed "Leather Apron." Then speculation switched to figures such as M. J. Druitt or Neil Cream, some of whom were arrested for other crimes. Interest in the Ripper subsided until around the late '20s when various movies and new books revived speculation. Interest in the case evolved and increased, with various weird suspects (such as "Jane the Ripper," a midwife gone mad) until in the '70s a writer named Stephen Knight upped the ante by spinning an elaborate theory involving Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence, portrayed as marrying and having a child by a Catholic shopgirl, and Sir William Gull, a doctor to Queen Victoria, assigned the task of cleaning up the mess, which entailed killing the five women who knew the shopgirl, and may have been blackmailing prominent people. This theory comes down to us via Joseph Sickert, the son of a prominent Victorian painter who is alleged to have been a friend of the Duke's. Sickert told this story to writer Knight, and it is the theory that infuses both versions of From Hell. And theories haven't stopped. The latest member of the potential-Ripper club is no less than Lewis Carroll, of all people.


III. The Importance of Alan Moore

Moore likes puzzles. He likes to imagine a world and figure out how it would really play out. He likes to account for everything. Born in 1953 in Northhampton, England, Moore was raised on comics and grew up to be arguably the best writer of comics the genre has ever seen. In 1988, after completing the epical Watchmen, Moore embarked on a collaboration with artist Eddie Campbell to chronicle the Ripper killings. But he didn't just want to tell the story again, he wanted to wrap up and tie together all the tangents of the Ripper mythos. It took him 10 years to complete the comic. The result is stunning. Lance Parkin, in his essential Pocket Essential guide to Moore, writes that From Hell is a "postmodern detective story — reaching for a truth that can never be known." Parkin calls Ripperlogy the "grandfather of modern conspiracy theories," in which a "century's worth of contradictory and incomplete pieces of information have built up." Moore himself writes in the copious footnotes to his book, that "In many ways, it seems to me that the 1880s contain the seeds of the twentieth century, not only in terms of politics and technology, but also in the fields of art and philosophy as well. The suggestion that the 1880s embody the essence of the twentieth century, along with the attendant notion that the Whitechapel murders embody the essence of the 1880s, is central to From Hell"

The Plot: From Hell the comic, begins in the '20s, as Abberline and a psychic named Robert Lees are walking along a beach. The rest of the book is in a form of flashback from that moment, but it begins with the life story of William Gull, a doctor whose strokes are kept hidden from his colleagues, and which make him mad. The rest of the novel tells the story of the Ripper killings in chronological order, starting with the marriage of the Duke of Clarence, and his spiriting away and the confinement of his new wife, to the methodical slaying of the witnesses by Gull and his hansom driver, Netley. Along the way, Moore tries to tie in all the loose ends. It's like Oliver Stone trying to fit the epileptic seizure at Dealy Plaza into the overall design of a conspiracy: The death of Druitt must be somehow woven into the tapestry of 1888 England. Moore's solutions to this self-imposed straight-jacket are often very clever (Druitt, for example, is presented here as a Lee Harvey Oswald-like patsy to deflect attention from Gull and the Royals), and the whole work attains the highest form of art in the Joycean and Nabokovian mode. One of the consequences of the slow, methodical building up of incident and detail is that we are taken into the minds of most of the characters; this is not just an intellectual exercise, it is a powerful and passionate exploration of character and protest of political corruption. In some ways, the movie version follows all this surprisingly closely.


IV. Fractured Calculus: The Hughes Brothers plus Alan Moore

The Hughes Brothers, and their credited screenwriters Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, have taken this nuanced, detailed, compelling story and made it just a serial killer movie. They have turned an epical chronicle of a time into a whodunit. They have altered characters, dropped characters, blended characters, prettied up the hookers and dumbed down the detectives. In a grotesque way, the Hughes Brothers, whose previous movie was a documentary celebration of black pimps, seem to take the side of the establishment against the quintet of streetwalkers who propel the plot. Sadly, their street smarts, such as they are, do not extend to the byways of Victorian England.


V. All The Reasons Why From Hell was a Bad Idea for a Movie

The Curse of the Red Herring: In order to dumb down the book, the writers and the Hugheses have refashioned it into a whodunit. That was the furthest thing from Moore's mind. He was creating a why done it, a how done it, anything and everything but a whodunit. Moore was attempting to reconcile all the known facts and most of the theories concerning the Ripper killings, but also explore a mindset that was eroding in the face of encroaching modernism. The movie version of From Hell is just a mystery, with various suspects, such as Dr. — note the name — Ferral (Paul Rhys), who laughs sadistically when the Elephant Man is unveiled, who seems to always arrive with mysterious haste from unknown quarters, and who is shown to be a smug aristocrat. We are not 12-years-old, and such an obvious red herring can't possibly be the real killer, and of course, he isn't. Nor is he the only red herring. In a scene now deleted, the filmmakers were even going to momentarily make us thing that Depp's Abberline could be the killer. What's the point of all this? Obviously the filmmakers got bogged down in the red herrings at the expense of addressing the larger issues that Moore favored.

Hey, Didn't They Already Make This Movie?: Yeah, they did. It was called Murder by Decree and it offered almost the same thesis. Made by Canadian Bob Clark (Porky's), it starred Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes solving the crime, only to find that a royal personage and a similar gaggle of Masons in high places as found in From Hell are covering it all up. This theory of Ripper killings is a predecessor to the Sickert idea, and it happens to be a not bad Ripper film and a not bad Sherlock Holmes film (it's the second movie to pit Holmes against the Ripper, after A Study in Terror). There's lots of room for more Ripper movies and theories, but it is interesting to see how quickly the culture forgets and then re-invents itself.

The Hugheses Mixed Up Johnny Depp with Rimbaud: One of the most significant changes from book to movie is the elimination of one character, his conflation into Depp's Abberline, and the reduction of Abberline (who was an historical figure, by the way, not a made-up guy) to an absinthe-swilling opium addict. A Victorian Bad Lieutenant, he has to be dragged from the depths of Chinatown dens in order to do his job. He is also presented as a widower so that his sorrowful affection over his dead wife can be transferred to Heather Graham's character, which in turn can be converted into a noble act of sacrifice. It's interesting that the Hughes Brothers and Co. opt for a stern, sad ending. It's about the most uncommercial aspect of this film. Unfortunately, it is at the cost of dropping, yet again, the nuanced, difficult, grimly realistic complications of the book.

Cut-Rate Fincher Sequences: Everyone from the Hughes Brothers to the makers of CSI want to be David Fincher. It may be that Fincher's innovations, as seen in Se7en and Fight Club have so invaded the spirit of Hollywood and television that people are borrowing his concepts without really knowing where they came from.

If It Isn't Broken, Why are they Fixing it?: Yglesias says on the disc's commentary track that there was a flaw in the novel, which was the motivation for Abberline's character. He seems not to have noted that Abberline is a cop, and that his motivation was to investigate and stop the killings, and that he was distracted, in the source novel, by a flirtation with the equivalent of the Heather Graham character. Yglesias saying this is like an adapter complaining that Homer didn't provide enough motivation for Ulysses staying on the high seas for so long. Be that as it may, there is nothing in the book that could not have been transferred to the film as is, were it not for the fact that the would have made From Hell an unpredictable art film with an unusual story structure, rather than a rip-snorting adventure yarn.


VI. The DVD

Fox's two-disc set is a rather lengthy celebration of the movie. Disc One offers an impeccable anamorphic transfer (2.35:1). Audio comes in both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1, as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround in English, Spanish, and French, with English subtitles and closed-captioning.

Besides the movie, Disc One offers the movie and numerous other supplements. The main feature on the first disc is an audio commentary by the Hughes Brothers, Rafael Yglesias, Peter Deming, and Robbie Coltrane, which is informative about the changes made between the source book and the movie, and ends with rather bleak comments from the Hugheses about Hollywood and their reaction to the business side of things and the hardships of filmmaking.

Also on hand are 20 deleted scenes and an alternate ending. These come with an optional commentary which tells us the usual things as to why the scenes were cut. Among the most important of them is a brief sequence that shows all the prostitutes working, only part of which was left in the film (deleted material is in color, material still in the film is in black and white). Another is a sequence showing various Victorians writing fake Ripper letters. Many of the cut scenes have to do with Netley (played in the movie by Jason Flemyng). Several of the "cut scenes" are no more than one shot.

Disc Two begins with "Six Degrees of Jack the Ripper: An Exploration of Ripperology," a 30-minute documentary about the history of the Ripper killings, and the various suspects, narrated by Ripper writers and experts Stuart P. Evans and Donald Rumbelow. Included in this documentary are selectable cutaway accesesed when a magnifying glass appears on the screen. These cutaways provide an additional 26 minutes of material excerpted from a British TV show from the mid-'70s highlighting writer Stephen Knight and his theories about the murders, which formed the basis for Moore's approach. There are no credits for this documentary or the cutaways within it, and in fact it's hard to be sure which voice belongs to which narrator. At one point in the main documentary there is a segment with no visuals except for two screens of text, while at the same time the narrator says something different: too much information at once. Eventually, one of the Hughes Brothers pops up to say that he thinks the Elephant Man did it.

Also on hand is Production Design, which is 12 minutes' worth of video footage with production designer Martin Childs and others explaining how they recreated Whitechapel in Prague. The Hughes Brothers themselves conduct a Tour of the Murder Sites, eight minutes of the duo walking around the set and making odd, sort of vulgar jokes. Graphic Novel offers a short segment comparing the film to its purported source. One of the Hugheses acknowledges that rather than an adaptation the movies is "inspired I would say more so." Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder is a 10-minute doc offering background about the drink that Depp's Abberline consumes. This little feature has wildly varying technical quality from interview to interview. A View From Hell is a 14-minute "making-of" featurette that appeared on cable television, hosted by Graham in a fetching red dress, and incorporating video footage that appears in the other supplements here. Finally there is the theatrical trailer, and a soon-to-be-extraneous trailer for Unfaithful.

— D.K. Holm

Disc One

Disc Two



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