Jack the Ripper goes to `Hell'
By JUDE SEYMOUR
Scene Movie Critic
"From Hell," the latest film to deal with the murders committed by Jack the Ripper, is based on a detailed comic book written by Alan Moore that reads as a revisionist history of the famous East End strangler. Moore saw himself as an artist rather than a historian, consequently taking historical fact and blending it with fictions of the imagination to concoct a new identity for the killer.
The directing team of Allen and Albert Hughes (The Hughes Brothers) follow Moore's cue, concentrating more on telling a good story than getting the facts right.
"From Hell" tells the fictional account of the Ripper's pursuer, Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp). Abberline is investigating the murders with the help of his psychic intuitions, which are coerced by a steady diet of Laudanum (a poison that contains strains of opium).
Jack focuses his murderous spree on a group of prostitutes in the Whitechapel district of London's East End, among them Mary Kelly (Heather Graham).
Mary and Abberline team together in hopes of keeping her and the other prostitutes alive. Meanwhile, the Nichols gang, a band of ruffians, accost Mary and her friends for protection money while at the same time the girls try to unravel the mystery behind the sudden disappearance of their friend Alice and her husband.
The Hughes Brothers step away from their previous black urban films — "Menace to Society" and "Dead Presidents" — to give Ripper his first major cinematic birth. In doing so, they bring the romanticized criminal into a Kafka-esque setting of 1880s London. The streets are rain-slicked, the fog is heavy and the alleyways jut out in random spaces. The Brothers show, with their stylized sets, that the Whitechapel district was the perfect setting for corruption, prostitution and murder.
Jack the Ripper is one of the more fascinating characters of the 19th century. And part of that fascination stems from the fact that the Ripper's true identity is, to this day, unknown. Before modern scientific techniques made fingerprinting possible, it was necessary to catch a murderer in the act. The Ripper worked quickly, removing organs and entrails in rapid-fire succession and with remarkable precision in the dark of night. These facts consumed the curiosities of Londoners, because Ripper was the first serial murderer in a new age of mass newspaper distribution and a literate general populace.
The Hughes Brothers bring all these characterizations to their Ripper, respecting his social significance although at the same time betraying the facts of his real identity.
The directors primarily focus on the heightening fears of an already xenophobic London population, with the Ripper threatening the stability of the monarchy with his dastardly works and elusive nature. The movie's underlying theme suggests that Jack may not "give birth to the 20th century" but will instead challenge the assumptions that the London upper class make of his identity. Jack made it unsafe to assume anything about his social, economic, or ethnic class because of the ways in which he operates.
Suddenly, the Ripper's treachery causes the magnifying glass to swing over the British elite (especially those with a keen knowledge of anatomy), making the monarchy quite uncomfortable. Jack the Ripper has succeeded in doing more than just committing murders: he has obligated the British upper class to drop their pretentious self-denying natures and examine their ranks for a possible murderer.
The Hughes Brothers have pieced together a compelling horror flick with a couple new chapters to add to the Ripper legacy. Propelled by Johnny Depp's wonderful acting, intricate scenery and a dark brooding sensibility, "From Hell" is a much-appreciated addition to this Halloween season. --Three and a half shamrocks (out of five)
Contact Jude Seymour at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, November 1, 2001