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From Hell (The Hughes Brothers) 2001
The Jack the Ripper mythology has always fascinated me. I wrote my first term paper, in 10th grade on the subject, and have read a good deal of speculation about the killer’s true identity. As one of the great, unsolved crimes, it is a hugely interesting historical topic. Unfortunately, that the crime remains unsolved makes the film adaptations feel inherently phony. On many levels, From Hell feels phonier than most. The film’s version of London consists of a Whitechapel district that feels a lot like the soundstage that it is. A blood red sky hangs ominously overhead. The prostitutes are distinctly good-looking, and gather in the local pub for gossip as if they were the cast of “Friends” (there’s the pretty one, the French one, the lesbian one, the matriarch, etc…). In one funeral scene, not only does the coffin break open to reveal the corpse, but also a black crow begins ominously cawing. Within thirty seconds, a cat leaps out in front of a character. Nearly everything in the film manages to be simultaneously boring and overwrought.
Johnny Depp shows up in what seems to be a reprise of his psychic police Inspector role from Sleepy Hollow. The film begins in one of his psychic opium hazes, and the haze never exactly lifts. When Jack finally claims his first victim, the restraint used in showing the killing is surprising. The flash of a blade and some effective sound work are all that the directors reveal. The film’s restraint doesn’t last long however. A few minutes later, the film segues into what looks like an absinthe-fueled screensaver, as Depp’s character has a vision that shows the audience nothing less than a close-up of the prostitute’s bloody vagina. There was a similar shot in Bruno Dumont’s police procedural L’Humanite, but there it weighed over the film as a reminder of the vulgarity of the crime, and was the image that drove the inspector onward. Here, it feels like little beyond exploitation. For all the psychic ability on display, there are few psychic scars. The majority of the film’s violent acts aren’t displayed, though their aftermaths certainly are. I suspect this is supposed to be seen as restraint, but it’s far from it.
I can see the attraction to this material for the Hughes brothers, who had previously only made “black films”, and that brings me to the most interesting and galling aspect of the film. The Ripper of the film, as many historians (conspiracy theorists) suggest, comes from upper-class society (the film gives a huge clue early on that makes the whodunit aspect of the film rather pointless). The implication here is that in order to maintain its standing, the upper-class will stomp on the slum-dwellers. The Ripper claims he is ushering in the twentieth century, and the film’s vision of the future is one in which “the Man” will literally lobotomize anyone that perceives to be a threat. The film indulges itself to make these points, however. There’s an odd sequence where Depp tries to give culture to Heather Graham’s prostitute that feels like something out of My Fair Lady. Much is made about her being beneath him when the two become romantically entwined. There are many jabs throughout at the erudite and cultured, and it feels more like sour grapes than a legitimate outrage. The film even expects the audience to be stunned when we find the killer isn’t a slum-dweller. Unfortunately, there’s nothing revolutionary, or even enlightening, in the film’s simplistic perception of class, even as it allows the directors to make the work distinctly their own. Perhaps the most unnecessary overstepping of this point occurs in the scene that shows groups of the wealthy as they are shown the Elephant Man at a hospital pledge drive. Perhaps the Hughes brothers should look at the gore that they’re selling under false pretenses before accusing others of the same.