June 12, 2003
We question the wisdom of giving Daz a film about Jack the Ripper, someone he has followed and idolised for years. We decided what the hell, let’s treat it as an experiment and see what he does.
For some reason I’ve always had an interest in serial killers. The whys and wherefores, the methods, and most importantly how they were caught. Ted Bundy, Jeffery Dahmer and John Wayne Gacey have been particular pet projects of mine over the years but it’s the as yet unsolved ones that really stir my imagination. For this reason I’ve paid particular interest to the career of Jack the Ripper.
Despite only officially murdering six women in the Whitechapel area of London in 1888, Jack has become the most talked about murderer in history. He’s had more books and films made about him than any other killer, and more speculation about the investigation carried out than any other, save perhaps the Kennedy assassination.
I’d treat each new film about Jack as an opportunity to find out new information and provide a new insight into the happenings of my boyhood hero, I mean fiend. So when From Hell was announced I thought that we might finally get the definitive answer as to who Jack really was. Unfortunately this was not the case as From Hell is about as factually accurate as a testimony from Jeffrey Archer. Based on a graphic novel that sensationalised the Ripper murders, and then borrowing from several other films and books on the subject From Hell has become more fantasy than fact. The accurately recreated murder scenes are strung together with a story that stops short of blaming alien invaders for the crimes.
One of the directors explained how they were basing From Hell on the graphic novel and a series of other films to craft a unique story when surely the original case file would have produced the best results? Using the existing literature as they did From Hell has been crafted in something of a unique film touching lightly on actual events. This doesn’t harm the film as entertainment but does leave it devoid of any real factual value.
From Hell is also a particularly violent and graphic film. The murder scenes are recreated in vivid detail and become more intense as the film goes on. The climactic murder of Mary Jane Kelly is recreated in horrific detail, perhaps more that we the viewers actually needed. It was done to show the relationship between Jack the Ripper and his trade as a surgeon with the clinical dissection of his victims, but I didn’t feel the need to see that much detail and I’m certain I’m not alone.
Shot on a modest budget From Hell makes good use of some great set design in the Czech capital Prague. As one of the accompanying interviews with the directors says, they originally went to Prague because the streets looked a little like Victorian London. The fact that there were cars on the streets took them by surprise, I guess Americans are shocked to see other countries with petrol powered transport. The cost of shooting in Prague is also very low, another enticing feature for the low-modest budget film maker. They then built an entire recreation of Victorian London in a field, which took just several weeks and was one hell of an achievement. Some of Prague’s more splendid buildings were also used for the refined interiors of London’s aristocracy.
One of the biggest grumbles from the UK about From Hell was the decision to cast American Johnny Depp as Inspector Abberline. While equally aggrieved at this decision I found his performance to be of his usual high standard, if not too similar to all of his Tim Burton directed efforts, and his accent to be most amusing. Sure he’s no Michael Caine, but then Robbie Coltrane takes the role played by Lewis Collins in the 1988 TV movie Jack the Ripper so it’s horses for courses.
In From Hell Inspector Abberline is a mystic suffering from premonitions of the future, allowing him to solve cases the good old fashioned Hollywood way. He also ‘chases the dragon’ which is term used to imply he partakes of a little opium. To my knowledge the real inspector Abberline wasn’t a drug addict, nor did he have any psychic ability. You’d think the real story of Jack the Ripper would be interesting enough.
Among the special features on From Hell, which are plentiful, there exists a docu styled film about the victims and suspects from the Ripper murders. While interesting in detail, the presentation is particularly bad to the point of being unwatchable. It looks as though it has just been assemble edited and they’ve forgotten to tighten it up. You need to have a genuine interest in the case to get through this.
There are also a series of deleted scenes that were cut at the last minute. All of which you can see why they were cut, and it’s mainly for pacing purposes but one of them does feature some classic Robbie Coltrane comedy. Worth a look.
It seems every decade or so we get a new take on the Jack the Ripper case, each promising to throw new light on the murders. Yet as the years go by the facts become even more blurred by time and the chances of ever truly finding out who Jack was are more remote than ever. Sadly we may never know the answer, and if we keep getting *new* information every few years we could end up in thirty years or so with the revelation that Jack the Ripper was in fact a time traveller from the year 2150 and he had an affair with the King of England. That’s the price of marrying fact with fiction, the two become hard to separate.
Despite the factual inaccuracies, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film – if that’s the right word. It moves along at a scintillating pace and plays out the inevitable ‘who is the ripper’ scene with great style. Superior to almost all contemporary slasher movies and with a grounding in historical facts, From Hell is a worthwhile watch if you’re into horror. If you’re after some new information about the case and possibly a clue as to who Jack really was then you’ll be disappointed.