Shiny Shelf

From Hell

By Mark Clapham on 07 October 2002

The ‘Dance of the Gull Catchers’ chapter of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s original graphic novel, From Hell, expresses the opinion that the Jack the Ripper mythology distorts over time, twisted into variations appropriate for the culture of each age. It’s ironic that while Moore and Campbell’s book, with its meticulous detail and etching-inspired art, felt almost timeless, this film adaptation is very much a product of recent cinema history.

While taking the basic conspiracy theory and a handful of visual cues from the graphic novel, the Hughes Bros film is more a Jack the Ripper story for the post-Seven generation than anything else, the story reinterpreted as flashy, pop-video serial killer flick. The sibling directors, previously responsible for Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, treat the East End of Victorian London as they would any other urban ghetto, so we get the cliches of the ‘hood transferred to the past, right down to the obligatory scenes of drug abuse captured in wavy stoner-vision. The transformation of the real life characters of Inspector Abberline and medium Robert Lees into one psychically driven detective, the Brothers turn interesting fact into boring fiction, giving us another telepathic ‘tec. Does anyone actually do any detection any more, or does every precinct have its own officer with ‘the sight’? How long until Sun Hill is overrun with people possessing precognitive gifts?

A-ny-way, another cinematic clich? of recent years is the sprawling, nonsensically all-encompassing conspiracy, and Moore’s Masonic machinations are here morphed into a more straightforward plot, with Special Branch virtually turned into the men in black, so deeply are they entrenched in the scheme. Against them, Jonny Depp’s Abberline is the usual maverick loner, albeit assisted by a trusty sidekick (Robbie Coltrane, far more like the book’s Abberline than Depp ever is).

So, the film is hardly a stream of exciting innovations, and neither is it a close reading of the book. But as the most recent telling of the Ripper story, it has a lot going for it. The acting is universally good, with a wish list of British character actors filling out the minor roles. The combination of contemporary stylings and historic setting creates a unique atmosphere, and the production design is a delight. Of particular note is the portrayal of London, which has such a presence in the movie that it might as well be in the cast list. The recreation of Whitechapel on a back lot is nothing short of stunning, and lovers of the capital will want to check this out for some gorgeous CG renderings of the city as it was. Other attention to detail is hard to fault – there’s a gruesome level of authenticity in the mutilation of the victims, and occasionally the Hughes Brothers will return to their source material, bringing one of Campbell’s panels to life. It’s in these moments that the film comes alive, and suggests that, yes, it would be possible to do a straight adaptation of From Hell for the screen.

What a shame, then, that this isn’t it. While the cleverness of Moore’s ripper theory remains intact, all the subtlety of the book is gone, and the psychic element is completely unnecessary. By turning a narrative that concentrated mainly on the ripper’s inner life into a murder mystery, the filmmakers have to jump through hoops to sustain this artificial whodunnit, with the killer putting on a silly voice while committing his crimes. The film also loses much of the psychology and mysticism of the book in the process. Changes to the flow of historical events would be acceptable dramatic licence if they made for a tighter story – unfortunately, most of them don’t, with the fate of Depp’s Abberline being pointless, inaccurate and ineffective.

However, as far as Hollywood movies go this is actually one of the more sensible exercises in scripting, and those unfamiliar with the real historical details and the graphic novel may even get through the movie without noticing much amiss. It’s in comparison to the facts, and to Moore and Campbell’s compelling work, that From Hell (the movie) suffers. On its own terms, it’s an exciting historical thriller with some lovely visuals and superb performances. With this amount of flash on screen, it’s a good choice for DVD purchase, and a packed extras disc makes for a decent buy.

Line Break

By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

Comments are closed.