The Whitechapel murders of 1888 can serve as the subject for fascinating films–the two versions of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel “The Lodger,” Hitchcock’s 1926 silent effort with Ivor Novello and John Brahm’s 1944 remake with Laird Cregar, provide proof of that, as do two pictures that pitted Sherlock Holmes against the notorious Ripper, James Hill’s “A Study in Terror” (1965–loosely based on Ellery Queen’s novel), and Bob Clark’s “Murder by Decree” (1979). Even these pictures (not to mention the dull 1960 “Jack the Ripper” directed by Robert Baker and the less impressive version of “The Lodger” made under the title “Man in the Attic” with Jack Palance in 1954) were, however, less imaginative than they might have been (apart from the stylishness of both Hitchcock and Brahm in presenting their story). In fact, it’s been the small screen that’s generally dealt with old Jack most successfully in recent years. Robert Bloch’s 1967 episode of the original “Star Trek” titled “Wolf in the Fold” and the adaptation of the same author’s “Yours Truly Jack the Ripper” made for Boris Karloff’s “Thriller” series in 1961 were memorable efforts, and even the 1988 TV miniseries simply called “Jack the Ripper,” directed by David Wickes with Michael Caine playing Scotland Yard Inspector Frederick Abberline, was solid if unspectacular, even though it adhered to the same theory about the murderer’s identity that marked Clark’s picture.
Now brothers Allen and Albert Hughes, who hit it big with “Menace II Society” in 1993 and then went on to make the flawed but epic “Dead Presidents” in 1995, have tackled the Ripper legend, with results that, given their considerable talent, are sorely disappointing. It has to be admitted that “From Hell”–the title is based, of course, on the address given in one of the perhaps- authentic Ripper letters–looks wonderful. The Hugheses’ visual sense certainly hasn’t deserted them: the recreation of London’s dark streets in Prague is gorgeous (though the fact that they’re so absurdly empty at night doesn’t ring remotely true), the camerawork often shows stunning virtuosity, and the color scheme is luscious, with the images frequently saturated in scarlet to heighten the mood.
A pity that the narrative shows nowhere near a similarly visionary quality. The film is said to be based on a graphic novel (read: expensive comic book) by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, and perhaps some of its scenes are patterned after panels from it. But the basic plot, including the killer’s motives and methods, derives from Stephen Knight’s 1978 book “Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution,” which was also the source for Clark and Wickes, and from the historical perspective its argument is even more discredited now than it was in 1979 or 1988. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too much about it in case there’s anybody out there who isn’t aware of its “revelations” (although the filmmakers disclose their “secret” far too early anyway), but it may be noted that the script by Terry Hayes and Raphael Yglesias adds three elements to Knight. Unfortunately, none of them works. The first is the transformation of Abberline into a sort of nineteenth-century “Profiler,” doing much of his work through drug-induced visions that point him toward the culprit. (Maybe this addition, absurdly contemptuous of the character of the real Abberline as it is, was designed to make up for the omission of the mystic Robert Lees, whom Knight describes as having visions about the murders; but if so, it’s supremely unsuccessful.) The second is the invention of a romance between Abberline and the prostitute Mary Kelly–a device both incredible and cheap. And the last is the insertion of a completely fictional character toward the very close to allow for an ending that is at least partially happy. (This might have been deemed obligatory in an age when American audiences can’t accept a totally downbeat denouement, but it’s no less silly for that.)
The cast doesn’t do much to salvage the weak, derivative screenplay. Johnny Depp does his customary schtick as Abberline–you could blend this part into the one he played in “Sleepy Hollow” without much trouble. Ian Holm is elegantly sinister as William Gull, the royal physician who assists Abberline in his investigations; it must be said, however, that the role was filled even better in the Wickes version by the late Ray McAnally, who–on the basis of the photographic evidence–was practically a ringer for the real doctor. Heather Graham is completely unconvincing as the streetwalker Kelly–she’s far too pretty, and looks as though she were regularly washed off and blow-dried. The distinguished Ian Richardson does a dreadful caricature of a snobby Charles Warren, commissioner of the London police. Nobody else is terribly noticeable apart from Robbie Coltrane, who’s utterly inauthentic but amusing as Abberline’s Shakespeare-spouting sergeant.
In cinematic terms, it’s probably time to put poor old Jack to rest until someone can (as Bloch has done) come up with a new twist on the subject. Apart from its brilliant surface, “From Hell” is so ordinary a treatment of the Ripper story that it seems utterly superfluous. Ultimately its viewers might find themselves uttering a question much like that asked by the frazzled Police Surgeon Drudge (Ian McNeice) who, when asked toward the beginning of the picture to uncover the gruesomely-mutilated corpse of the murderer’s initial victim one time too often, inquires, “Why must I experience this degradation over and over again?” Indeed.