From Hell

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I Got A Letter... From Hell. (Friday the 13th Write-Off)

Sep 14, 2002
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Many. Style. Grit. Intelligent. 'No apologies' moviemaking.

Cons:The love interest debacle.

The Bottom Line: Stylish, yet deep and full of purpose. A treat in its 'departure', and perhaps one of those little things chipping away at an entrance to the next century.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

Here lies

Vormancian's entry in the Friday the 13th Write-Off. A spookable write-off in celebration (mockeration) of Friday the 13th. More info below. It is still, by the way, Friday the 13th, because I haven't been to sleep yet.

During the DVD special-feature discussions of this movie, we are told point blank (as though we couldn’t guess) why this movie didn’t quite go in the same direction as its source material. The money people just said it wasn’t going to happen.

In the Alan Moore graphic novel, we walk along with Jack the Ripper as he performs the murders. This, however, is not a movie it is easy to convince someone to give you money to make, not big money anyway. Thus, in the movie we follow along with a detective as he tries to discover the identity of the Ripper.

Despite this change, and the subsequent fact that the movie simply can’t, in some sense, get exactly where it’s going, ‘From Hell’ is an excellent film.

You have, hopefully, the basic plot of any movie about Jack the Ripper, and too much of the specific plot here will give things away, and so I won’t say too much. However, this is the sort of movie, and moreso because of the shift from the source material, in which things are rather given away anyway. It’s not, as must be obvious, ‘about’ who Jack the Ripper is, but more about ‘why’ Jack the Ripper is, and how the person who is committing the Ripper murders (who in some sense, obviously, is Jack the Ripper all the time) becomes Jack the Ripper.

In this version of the story, we come at the Ripper murders from the perspective of (chief? head? some sort of boss-like) detective Fred Abberline. Detective Abberline, among other things, has ‘visions’ of the future at times, and is an opium addict. The cause/effect relationship here, if there is one, is not expressly explored. He, apparently, has visions more often when under the influence, but he has them at other times as well.

Abberline (Johnny Depp) has a vision of a murdered prostitute lying in the street shortly before he is rousted by his fellow officers from an opium den to go to the scene of a murdered prostitute, though not the same one.

We follow Abberline along the trail of the murders in a manner reminiscent of a sort of diabolic Holmes adventure. Abberline has his Watsonish character supporting him, Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), also of the police department. Abberline is also, despite actually being part of the police force, often stymied by the head of the police force. And, in many other ways, things progress in a rather Holmesian way. However, though Abberline does use his powers of deduction in a (thankfully) subdued way, he doesn’t exactly ‘do’ anything Holmes does/would do, except a lot of drugs.

During the film, we alternate between following Abberline, and following the lives of the victims, mostly focusing on Mary Kelly (Heather Graham). Eventually, we bring the two parts of the movie together, and we get exposed to the unfortunate ‘love interest’ angle of the movie, which was unnecessary and didn’t really make sense.

As far as plot, there isn’t much else terribly relevant to tell. At one point, Abberline decides to try and get some information from the medical perspective, and we are introduced to another character, Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), medical practitioner to the royal family, and gives us our entrance to another avenue for exploring things royal, etc., etc.

Apart from this, anything further that is directly about the plot would be to lead you in some direction or other.

Since the time of the Ripper murders, there have been more theories than one is able to count. One of the theories (and this won’t spoil anything for you) that is still ‘live’ is that the murders somehow covered up the discretions of Prince Edward. By contrast, one of the theories that is not still ‘live’ (though one not entirely unpopular at one point) is that the murders were committed by Lewis Carroll.

The Prince Edward theories, of course, vary greatly. In some, the Queen knew about the murders and cover up. In others, she actually ordered the whole affair. In some, the cover up revolves around a child Prince Edward has with a commoner. In others, something else is proposed for the needed ‘fall’ of Edward, a compromising letter or such. Some form of this theory stays ‘live’ for many, due mostly to the fact that it is one of the few sub-categories of theories that pays much attention to the fact that the victims were all well-known to each other.

‘From Hell’ gives us a Prince Edward theory, though one that perhaps goes to extreme lengths. This, however, is not particularly important, in some sense. As I said, the movie, despite the changes mentioned, still tries its best to explore things in the way the source material did. That means looking more closely, not only at Jack the Ripper, but the making of Jack the Ripper.

What is perhaps best about ‘From Hell’ is simply the myriad ways in which it could have gone wrong, but didn’t. The numerous ways in which Hollywood so often demystifies, cheapens, and ‘makes ready for mass appeal’ good ideas, are gloriously absent here. While Hollywood did tap its magic wand over this one in at least one crucial way, it apparently thought its work done, and left it alone otherwise.

One might not expect it of the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents), but ‘From Hell’, clearly a sharp, if not hairpin, turn from their other work, is a movie that knows virtually all there is to know about translating mood, theme, and perhaps even in a sense ‘purpose’, across mediums.

‘From Hell’ is a movie darker, in some way, even than how dark it is. It is dark visually. It is dark in its subject and plot. It is dark in its portrayal of the setting in general. But, as the saying goes, in some beyond the beyonds way, it is also dark in your mind. It is dark in what it is ‘telling’ you, and in this movie that is far more than merely what is telling you. It is dark in what it makes you think, and in this respect it is the darkest sort of dark, because ‘From Hell’ is an extremely intelligent movie.

On the surface, this is a movie that simply delivers to us a wonderfully chilling version of the Ripper story. It’s dark (and it is a dark that is contrasted, and thus heightened, by an appropriate amount of, if not actually light, at least 'not so dark'), definitely creepy, methodical, and it has its moments that will scare (depending on your scarability factor). It is, however, much more than that. Drawing wisely (and as best it could) from the ‘sub-themes’ of its source, the movie gives an accounting/analyzation of the killing of a ‘time’ as well as the killing of the women.

Using a line attributed to the Ripper (from one of the ‘Ripper’ letters) as a hook to prepare you for parallel exposition, ‘From Hell’ (the story, book or movie) walks the ‘Ripper road’ all the while describing, in something like graphic detail, the murder of London itself, or at least, the murder that took place before the cleansing and rebirth that brought it into the 20th century.

From the stark look at not just poverty, but a particular type of poverty, and a poverty brought on by very definite causes, and a very clearly polar distribution of wealth across a society, to the neverending references to the times. Though we never really look at factories or trains, we are always aware that they are there. We hear them, and we sense them. The music is often chugga-chuggaing its way along. There are the references to (for no real ‘reason’) the wild west shows, photography, the phonograph, and many, many more. All of them little pieces of the 20th century chipping away at an entrance to the world. Even to its general portrayal of the monarchy (which was at the time in trouble), the movie is constantly detailing its thoughts, though ‘on the sly’, on the ‘state of the state’.

‘From Hell’ is an excellently stylized telling of a story/plot often told, and while it remains a conceptually sound horror movie, it goes itself one better. It is not just scary, suspenseful, or chilling. It is not a movie that is merely dark, graphic, vulgar, or intense. It is downright brutal. Though at times during the film you will think to yourself that you are scared, or that a scene is particularly (and you may think unnecessarily, though I may disagree with you) vulgar/graphic, at the end of the movie you don’t think, ‘that was scary’, or ‘that was vulgar’, you think, ‘I’m spent’.

Johnny Depp, who to my chagrin is proving more and more that he is actually an excellent actor, leads the entire movie. In something similar to what happens when one thinks of an actor carrying a movie (though I suppose that is to do this in the bad way), everything about the movie follows his lead. His character is surprisingly ‘real’. Surprising, because it is almost beyond the point of what is necessary here. Imagine a movie doing something better than it needs to.

In virtually every way, a truly wonderful movie. From sets and settings (done to great detail), to plot, to characters, to mood and ‘feel’, ‘From Hell’ is an achievement. In fact, if I had to pick two movies of the last ten years or so (and I was in a dark mood), that were not particularly popular, but which I thought would gain respect/popularity over time, I would pick this and ‘Dark City’. ‘Dark City’ is already moving towards its place as a movie that will stand the test of time, and I predict this one will as well.

I obviously recommend this movie (though from a marketing perspective, I certainly can't recommend naming your movie 'From Hell'), but that is with some reservation. It is, as I said, a brutal movie. It makes no bones about showing what it is showing, whether that is an in-depthish look at the lives of the victims (they are prostitutes remember), or the victims after they become victims. It also shows a lot of drug use, and while it doesn’t (I guess) condone or recommend it, it does show it, and it does show our 'hero' making his Absinthe-Laudunum cocktail in rather loving detail.

The DVD release of ‘From Hell’ includes a virtual extravaganza of special features. From a host of information on the making of the movie, to a look at a lot of historical information about Jack the Ripper, to everything you ever wanted to know about Absinthe (currently becoming somewhat popular again). Among these special features, there is also an alternate ending, and though I hate to say it (for no real reason), the alternate ending seems to me to be rather clearly the better ending. It seems, and maybe it is just me, that the original ending plays too much off the love interest fiasco. Driving the love interest at you is a mistake in my mind. Running away from the love interest thing, with the alternate ending, would have put things together better.

Other participants in the Friday the 13th Write-Off (and a more wonderful bunch you will find around any corner) are: AliventiAsylum, artbyjude, brandon_m, d_fienberg, lambchops, matt2050, Mike_Bracken, Mom2TyZick (our host), peterbryan, Rbradford, remnjava, sampo24, shadow8, SusiDee34, tbthorn, and xxxxer. Take a minute to use your powers of webmastery for good for a change and go find their entries.

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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