Dismissed a decade ago as a summer slasher-film, Albert and Allen Hughes’ From Hell (2001) is at once a savage, sumptuous, and sly retelling of the famed “Jack the Ripper” murder cases that plagued London at the turn of the 20th century. The film’s poor marketing did not lead audiences to expect the movie’s strange fusion of drama, horror, and psychology, and so most of its box office was generated by fans of Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, who co-star. However, Depp wasn’t as famous as he is, today, and the guys hoping for Graham, who plays a Whitechapel prostitute, to reprise one of her scenes from Boogie Nights were disappointed by the lack of nudity. The film seemed to satisfy nobody; was it horror or terror, history or noir, drama or farce? Few stopped to consider that From Hell is all of these things.
Depp plays Inspector Abberline: a clever, clairvoyant Scotland Yard detective given the unenviable task of capturing the Ripper. Abberline tracks down his suspects not only through police work, but through wit and sorcery, envisioning the killer in opium and laudanum induced dreams. Following his prophetic visions, he tracks down the five prostitutes targeted for dismemberment by the Ripper, and then to an elite underbelly of London society who are somehow involved with the Ripper’s crimes. The story is straight out of classic film noir, reminiscent of 1940’s thrillers like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and then later 1970’s noirs like Chinatown and Night Moves. As in those other movies, the lone, dispassionate detective finds himself drawn into a covert world of mayhem and corruption.
The title of the film is inspired by the Ripper’s sign-off to all his boastful, taunting letters to Scotland Yard. (He never officially called himself “Jack the Ripper”). Further exploring the Ripper’s bloody legacy, the movie begins with one of his quotes, “One day, men will look back and say I gave birth to the 20th century.” It seems like hyperbole, but perhaps he was right. Only fifteen years after the Ripper’s killing spree, WWI would begin, starting a cycle of unprecedented bloodshed. Did the Ripper’s crimes symbolically lay the foundations for 20th century butchery?
Inspector Abberline counters with his own searing comeback line to the Ripper, “You won’t live to see the 20th century.” Surely, it’s no screenwriting mistake by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesiasm, working from the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, that Johnny Depp’s character is imbued with clairvoyant powers. No explanation is ever given for why he has such gifts, but there are many possible philosophical and spiritual reasons. It’s most tempting to think of Inspector Abberline as a spiritual guard from the ancient world of magic and illusion, who is fighting against the antiseptic science – exemplified by the cruel, calculated crimes of the Ripper – of the 20th century. Perhaps Abberline’s duel with the Jack the Ripper is not only a personal one, but a microcosm of a larger struggle for the world’s collective soul. For all our scientific progress, the filmmakers seem to be shouting, we should not cast away the beautiful charm of mysticism.
Since the identity of the Ripper has never been discovered, the events portrayed in From Hell must be considered complete speculation. Regardless, the film remains a bold, vibrant masterpiece: an enigmatic fusion of cinematic styles and themes that are at once engrossing, compelling, edifying, and ultimately very terrifying.