Movie-Hype (#751) - FROM HELL
There are many different kinds of scary movies. In current vogue is the modified slasher flick, high on the torture and gore components, which some people crave, but others are not into. For the most part, I can't really see the point.
Then there are the more psychological thrillers, in vein of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, where a mystery is being solved, but more importantly, we watch the existential journey of the investigator, who is forever changed by chasing evil.
The Hughes Brothers, more known for their gangster-world films MENACE II SOCIETY and DEAD PRESIDENTS bring us FROM HELL. Their horror film is thoroughly grounded in the psychological thriller camp. Oh, there's blood and gore. Plenty of it. However, while the gruesome murders are in some way (we will never really understand) the point of the murderer, it is not the point of the movie. That makes a huge amount of difference.
FROM HELL is adapted from a gigantic Alan Moore graphic novel. Much of it had to be cut to make a movie, but the essential vision remains: Victorian England not aspropagandic Fairy Tale, but a city of true nightmare.
Even while it was happening, Victorian London styled itself as a more innocent civilized time, a notion completely false even then, where privilege fell solely to the upper class. Nothing shattered that lie more than theWhitechapel murders, or to use a name you might be more familiar with: Jack the Ripper.
For three months Jack the Ripper had all of London in an absolute frenzy. Though the killings were "only" poor women--mostly prostitutes--they were horrifically gruesome, and shattered whatever veneer of civility London pretended. Perhaps the most studied murder case in all of world history, the killings have never been solved, the murderer never concretely identified, though multiple theories certainly abound.
It is into this ocean that FROM HELL wades. The name comes from a letter purportedly sent from the Ripper himself, as a home "address." The book (and the movie) take their guilty figure from a theory (by Stephen Knight) as to why these murders were committed in the first place. The theory is fascinating, and I won't ruin it for you.
However, the theory is not really the point of the movie. For that, we have to go to an obscure Douglas Adams novel, "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency." The idea is: to solve a crime you must solve the entire culture or society in which the crime is committed. Sounds intriguing, no?
And that's what FROM HELL is really about. The Victorian myth is shattered, both in our eyes, and in theirs, as Inspector Frederick Abberline seeks to rip off the mask that both the Ripper and London are hiding behind.
Aberline is played by Johnny Depp, who once again throws himself into the role, creating a memorable character. Aberline is an opium addict and a psychic, a feature that I confess did not work too well for me, and wasn't really necessary. (Reportedly almost all of the occult references were taken out of the book for the movie, which may be whileAberline being a psychic doesn't gel in the movie world, but I just didn't think it did much. Thankfully this is not a large part of the film.)
Aberline is a throwback: all about modern methods and cutting-edge police work and forensic analysis more at home on CSI than Scotland Yard circa 1888. At the same time, Aberline gets those "visions." (Sadly, his chemical dependency pretty much makes him a boy in blue for all ages.)
Mary Kelly is one of the prostitutes, and plays the romantic interest (more or less) to Aberline. Like most of the characters in the movie, Kelly was a real woman, and almost certainly did not look as good as Heather Graham. But we put such things aside for cinema, yes?
What some people don't put aside for cinema is Heather Graham's acting. I have been a pretty harsh critic of Miss Graham, who sometimes I find to be abysmal. Strangely, though, sometimes she's just fantastic. There's really no middle ground, either. Graham was perfect as Roller Girl (in BOOGIE NIGHTS), and was by far the best partner to Austin Powers, making the middle film the best in the series. She had a great run as a happy-go-lucky Psychiatrist on Scrubs, too. Other than that......pretty much total carnage.
Well, for whatever reason, Graham is great as Mary Kelly. She has a saucy attitude, what you might call a liberated feminist's perspective. (You know: a liberated feminist who sells her vajay, but you can't have everything.) In any event, if you're someone who just hates on Heather Graham, put that aside and enjoy the performance.
The rest of the supporting cast is solid, with standout performances from Ian Holm and Robby Coltrane. This movie does not work as well without what each brings to the table.
FROM HELL the movie cuts considerably from From Hell the book. The book was never trying to make accurate history. Which is all a long way of saying: while the characters may have existed, and many of the details (and transcripts of actual police interviews) are spot-on, don't look at FROM HELL as if you're watching history. You're not.
That said, there are several ways to interpret history. There are facts and dates, and all that, which may or may not be true anyway. Then there is a more existential way of looking at things. To go back to that Douglas Adams novel, to solve a crime you must solve the society in which is was committed. That may sound like BS, but think about the crimes that arecommitted today. Are most of them not in some way a reflection of the times? Understanding Jack the Ripper means first and foremost understanding what Victorian London was actually like.
I'm not saying the Hughes Brothers have that down pat. For one thing, their streets of London are devoid of shit, and we will never understand the past until we realize how bad it stank. But beyond the superficial, the Hughes have been quoted as saying that they saw FROM HELL as not too much different from their earlier flicks. A "Ghetto" movie, one of the brothers called it. I think they understand Victorian London more than most. After all, in every competent theory of Jack the Ripper I can find, it is the disconnect between the sheltered upper class and the rest of the city that allowed the murderer to roam so free.
Suspension of Disbelief Index: On the one hand, much of the detail is done with exquisite accuracy. Not all, but a good portion. On the other hand, the main character is a psychic. Apart from him, I'd say a 4 out of 10.
Genre Grade: As a psychological horror film that still manages to bring the blood and pain, you have to go with A.
Objectionable material? Let me be crystal clear: while the initial motivation was not to make a typical torture/slasher flick, FROM HELL does accurately depict the savagely brutalfiletting Jack the Ripper performed on his victims. Not only is this a movie that should be unequivocally for adults, but even some of you might be squeamish.
DVD Features: Excellent extras that are well worth your time. First of all, the commentary by the Hughes Brothers is fascinating, hearing what they were thinking. There's an HBOfeaturette , I think called "First Look." You've seen those before. There is a Behind the Scenes segment, one on the actual murder sites, and a feature that lays out the history of theWhitechapel murders, for crime buffs. There is a feature comparing the book to the movie, which is cool, and even one on absinthe (which plays a part in the film). I'm probably forgetting one or two, but the point is: if you like the movie, take the time to go through the extras. Even the print is good, a true "wide screen" transfer.
Pantheon Percentile: As I was making my case for watching FROM HELL, I probably glossed over some of the problem. I won't like and say FROM HELL is a perfect movie. It isn't. Sometimes it is a little jumbled and messy. But for suspense fans who can handle adult content, this one is a real treat, and one you could watch several times. A greatcapper for any Halloween party. 87.