From Hell - Released on October 19, 2001 - Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes. Produced by Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher. Screenplay by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias. Starring: Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, Ian Richardson, and Jason Flemyng. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
I would like to begin a new series of posts called Unsung Cinema. These are films I believe were overlooked and ignored when they were released in cinemas that I would like to reappraise. The first of these films is the Hughes Brothers From Hell, which came out in October of 2001. The film received mixed to positive reviews (57 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and didn't make much of an impact at the box office, even with Johnny Depp as the lead (however it did gross 74 million overall on a 35 million dollar budget).
Set in Victorian Era London, a troubled clairvoyant police detective investigates the murders by Jack The Ripper. This is an adaptation of Alan Moore's existential historical fiction graphic novel series of the same name from 1989-1996. The graphic novel and film use the Royal Masonic Conspiracy Theory developed by author Stephen Knight, in which the Jack the Ripper murders were part of a conspiracy to conceal the birth of an illegitimate royal baby fathered by Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence. This of course has been disproven many times, yet is a popular plot device in many Jack the Ripper fiction. The novel and film are not historically accurate in terms of character motivations and story. They are, however, both extremely detailed and accurate regarding the time period of that era.
However, though the film remains faithful to Moore's comic in spirit and look, it is quite different from the graphic novel in many ways. The film turns the story into a "whodunit", instead of the mad character study the graphic novel was, in which we always know who Jack the Ripper is. This was probably done because the graphic novel is so ambitious, a straight adaptation would have been difficult.
Alan Moore did not have anything good to say about the film. He was reportedly disgusted that his "gruff" version of Frederick Abberline was replaced with an "absinthe-swigging dandy" and that the story was changed from an existentialist historical fiction into a mundane "whodunit". This, being the first of the film adaptations of Moore's books, was his first step towards disavowing all film adaptations of his work (beginning with "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman", "V for Vendetta", and "Watchmen").
The graphic novel is an incredible piece of work and I highly recommend reading it if you already haven't. Unlike many, however, I do believe the film version directed by Allen and Albert Hughes is very good. The film has it's obvious flaws, such as it has to abide by the conventions of a "whodunit", and the casting of Heather Graham as prostitute Mary Kelly is very unconvincing (though she gives a fine performance), especially since she is far and away more beautiful than the other prostitutes.
What I feel is incredible about the film is the amazing direction by the Hughes Brothers. There's shots in this film that belong in a museum. The Hughes Brothers bring a unique vision to London in 1888 that I believe few directors could have done. They come from a tough, street wise background. Their parents divorced when they were two. The twins moved with their mother to Pomona, California, east of Los Angeles, when they were nine. The mother raised her sons alone while putting herself through school and starting her own business, a vocational center. Supportive of her sons' ambitions as filmmakers, she gave them a video camera when they were 12. As a result, the boys spent their free time making short films. When a teacher suggested that they make a "How To" film for an assignment, they complied with a short film entitled "How to Be a Burglar."
After Allen had a son at the age of 18, the brothers dropped out high school and began directing music videos for artists like Tone Loc and Tupac Shakur (for which they had a famous falling out with). The first film the duo made was Menace II Society when they were just 20 years old! It was a critical success and was highly praised at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. Their second film was Dead Presidents in 1995. Dealing with the black underclass society like their feature film debut, and also starring Larenz Tate, the film centered on war veterans during the racially charged Vietnam War era. The film, which was released at the New York Critics Film Festival, failed to make as much of a profit as their first film. They followed this up with the documentary American Pimp in 1999 and their third feature film became From Hell in 2001.
Considered too violent and gory by some critics, the film had to be edited in order to avoid an NC-17 rating by the MPAA. As described by Johnny Depp, there were sometimes disagreements between the twins regarding the direction of the film. For example, the amount of shown violence was a point of contention between the two; one brother thought the brutality should be shown, while the other believed implied violence would suffice.
Despite this, the film is successful because of the atmosphere the Hughes Brothers seep this movie in. The film's opening shot, following a quote by Jack the Ripper ("One day man will look back and say I gave birth to the 20th Century"), is a shot of Big Ben at night set against a blood red sky.
Trevor Jones' moody score sets the tone and the camera pans down to reveal the depths of London's East End, filled with drunks, criminals, and prostitution. It's quite a sequence and one that sets the tone for things to come. Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and her small group of London prostitutes trudge through unrelenting daily misery. When their friend Ann Crook is kidnapped, they are drawn into a conspiracy with links higher up than they could possibly imagine. The kidnapping is soon followed by the gruesome murder of another woman, Martha Tabram (Samantha Spiro), and it becomes apparent that they are being hunted down, one by one as various prostitutes are murdered and mutilated post mortem.
Enter Johnny Depp's Police Inspector Frederick Abberline, a brilliant yet troubled man whose police work is often aided by his psychic "visions." Abberline's investigations reveal that the murders, while gruesome, imply that an educated person is responsible due to the precise and almost surgical method used. Ann is found a few days later in a workhouse having been lobotomized after officials and doctors supposedly found her to be insane. It is implied this was done to silence her. Abberline consults Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), a physician to the Royal Family, drawing on his experience and knowledge of medicine. These findings, coupled with his superiors impeding his investigations, point to a darker and organized conspiracy. Abberline becomes deeply involved with the case, which takes on personal meaning to him when he and Mary begin to fall in love.
Abberline deduces that Masonic influence is definitely present in these crimes. His superior, a high ranking Freemason himself, then makes direct intervention and suspends Abberline. ***SPOILER*** It is then revealed that Gull is the killer (this movie has been out for 13 years and in the graphic novel we always know Gull is the killer, sorry).
The opium trip scenes Abberline goes through are brilliantly filmed and the murders the Ripper commits are horrifying and expertly filmed. The film's Masonic conspiracy and symbols are impressive to behold as well. One of the themes of the film is class and at one point we are even shown "The Elephant Man" being revealed to a shocked upper class crowd, for charitable causes. Another of the film's main themes is violence against women and how men, whether upper or lower class, look down upon women and prostitutes.
Commenting on the Hughes Brothers directing, Slant Magazine's Ed Gonzalez notes: "Their London is a delirious embodiment of a raging inferno and the film's many on-screen deaths are remarkable to behold. The camera zooms into a gramophone just as the film begins to resemble an opium confession. The compositions are startlingly symmetrical. The throats of film's prostitutes are cut with expert precision and objects begin to take on a fairy-tale quality of their own—coins cover the eyes of the dead ensure the soul's safe passage into heaven just as the Ripper's grapes-as-prostitute-bait seamlessly blend into the flowery patterns of his victims' clothing. The bloody London skyscapes are distressing, the deaths almost painterly. Ripper's crimes and Abberline's opium "trips" become jittery reactions to an unenlightened time (the elephant man was entertainment and lobotomies were a cause célèbre)."