October 25, 2001
By Franklin Harris
In 1888, evil stalked the streets of London's Whitechapel district.
To this day, no one knows who Jack the Ripper was. There are more than 20 suspects, both likely and farfetched. Even the number of victims — all prostitutes — is in doubt. Five seems a likely total, but there could be as few as four or as many as eight.
Jack the Ripper was not the first serial killer, but he was the first to capture the public's imagination, and his hold on it remains.
He has inspired countless books and dozens of films. In fiction, he has been captured or killed numerous times, even by the likes of Sherlock Holmes.
"From Hell" revives the Ripper legend once more.
Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, "From Hell" is loosely based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic novel of the same name. Both the film and the book rely on the Ripper theory Stephen Knight advances in his 1978 book, "Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution."
I won't go into the theory here. While Moore and Campbell tell us the Ripper's identity early on — they are more interested in what goes on in his head than what he does with his knives — the Hughes Brothers insist on giving us a murder mystery. As they do a rather good job, I won't spoil their work.
Suffice it to say that Knight's theory is one of the most unlikely around. After all, with a pretentious subtitle like "The Final Solution," how could his book fail to be anything but? But, as Moore notes, it makes for the best story.
In the film, Johnny Depp plays Inspector Frederick Abberline, given the unenviable task of combing London's slums for the Ripper.
Depp's Abberline bears virtually no resemblance to the genuine article, who died in 1929. The Hughes Brothers give us an Abberline mourning the death of his wife. He numbs his pain with a potent mixture of absinthe and laudanum and then escapes into the haze of an opium den.
It is while chasing the dragon that Abberline has his visions, which eventually lead him to the killer.
This psychic element is from Moore, but in his version it is the Ripper, not the police inspector, who has supernatural insights.
As he kills, Moore's Ripper has visions of a 20th Century waiting to be born, and the Ripper sees himself as its midwife.
In Nicholas Meyer's 1979 film "Time After Time," Jack the Ripper steals a time machine and escapes to the present. Seeing what the world has become, he remarks, "Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Now I'm an amateur."
The Hughes Brothers keep little of what makes Moore's tale unique. All that remains is the Ripper's sense that he will inspire a century of murder and destruction. Nevertheless, they turn in a superior effort.
Filmed in the Czech Republic, "From Hell" captures the squalor of Victorian England's forgotten underside.
The Hughes Brothers are best known for their urban crime films, "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents," but the change in setting to 1880s London doesn't seem to bother them. One slum is as good as another it seems.
The brothers also get good performances from Depp and co-star Heather Graham, who is perhaps too pretty for the role of prostitute Mary Kelly, but manages a credible Irish accent.
But the real standouts are in the supporting cast. Robbie Coltrane is excellent as Abberline's long-suffering assistant, Peter Godley, and Ian Holm is even better as Abberline's advisor, Sir William Gull.
Ripperologists — and there are many of them, both professional and amateur — will find much about "From Hell" that infuriates them. It isn't history. For that I suggest you consult the excellent Ripper Web site, www.casebook.org.
But "From Hell" is an intelligent, atmospheric work of fiction, and it is probably the best film yet about history's most notorious serial killer.