Like Dracula and Frankenstein, Jack the Ripper is a perennial favorite of horror film audiences. Dracula plays on the theme of eternal life, Frankenstein on the theme of Man playing God in creating life. The Ripper, based on an actual case, is the granddaddy of serial killers, one whose victims are prostitutes–it’s evil preying on evil, a variation on the universal bogeyman, played out against the backdrop of newly industrialized and rigidly class stratified Victorian London.
Since the case was never solved, and the Ripper never caught, fictional interpretations enjoy unbound freedom to speculate on the identity of the perpetrator and his motivations. Audiences continue to be drawn to the vicarious chills and thrills of a murderer lurking in dark and foggy back streets, grotesque mutilations in store, all observed from the safety and security of a seat in the theater.
From Hell offers a new twist on the theme, one that reaches to the very top of London society. Adapted from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, it introduces a theory of a Masonic conspiracy behind the slashings. The intelligent and cogent script by Rafael Iglesias (Fearless, Les Miserables) and Terry Hayes (Vertical Limit) builds its case step by step as opium- and absinthe-addicted Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) uses canny observation and shrewd reasoning, occasionally abetted by drugged visions, step by step getting closer to the killer. He is sympathetically assisted by police sergeant Godley (Robbie Coltrane), but hampered by the corrupt Police Commissioner (Ian Richardson), just one of the smug, condescending, and anti-Semitic English upper classmen who play roles in the story.
Filmed in Prague and in a studio built re-creation of the Whitechapel district of London, the film is stylishly photographed, using dark, saturated blues and grays, against which a quick flash of light reflected off of a gleaming blade has a chilling effect. Co-directors Allen and Albert Hughes’ effective opium dream sequences show the influence of Darren Aronofsky’s powerful depictions of drug tripping in Requiem for a Dream. And, of course, there is plenty of blood and gore, with even the police surgeon made ill by the grisly remains of the Ripper’s victims.
But From Hell does not merely lead from one tense murder to the next; it is carefully plotted and it is the intriguing mystery story that leads the viewer on, rather than anticipation of the next bit of bloodletting. It’s fun guessing at the script’s red herrings and there are plenty of glimpses of brawling, bawdy street life, from scarred thugs running a protection racket against the hookers to a flop house where the poor sleep sitting on a bench, tied into place so they won’t fall over. Beyond the implied social commentary, scenes of the performance of a lobotomy in a surgical amphitheater and the display of the grotesque Elephant Man to raise funds for a hospital add pointed observations about arrogance and opportunism in the medical/scientific establishment.
Johnny Depp (Blow, Chocolat) seems always to be Johnny Depp, whether as an American drug dealer, a gypsy wanderer, or an addicted London cop with a Cockney accent. Here he inhabits the role with conviction and his usual tendency to underplay works well. Ian Richardson (wonderful as Francis Urquhart in the BBC’s House of Cards) is the man you’ll love to hate and Ian Holm (The Sweet Hereafter) gets a chance to display his wide range of thespian skills. Heather Graham (Sidewalks of New York, Committed) is entirely too beautiful, charming, and clean to be a nineteenth century street whore. Jason Flemyng (The Red Violin, Lock Stock, etc.) is notable in the role of a profoundly conflicted coachman.