Jack the Ripper is the ostensible subject of Albert and Allen Hughes’ From Hell, but this legendary figure is more a point of departure, an obviously sensational hook, than the film’s focus. The real subject is the street, or rather, the street as a cultural concept, simultaneously brutal and beautiful. From the moment the camera begins its descent—from a breathtakingly lurid orange skyscape, down into the filthy closeness of London’s Whitechapel slum, 1888—it’s clear that From Hell takes its own title quite literally. As the camera continues moving, now sinuously tracking the red-haired prostitute Mary Kelly (Heather Graham, who, it must be said, looks far too milky and soft to be living Mary’s hard life) through back alleys and past dingy doorways, the city’s dark ferocity is almost palpable.
It’s a self-consciously “cinematic” opening, technically stunning and indicating immediately that the movie is as interested in the ways stories are told as in the stories themselves. From Hell is about the ways that economic, cultural, and political systems—systems visible day to day on the street—create monsters. Even beyond this, and much like the Hugheses’ previous films (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, and American Pimp), it is about the intimate relations between media and monstrosity.
The Hugheses’ choice this time to tell the Ripper story is appropriate in all the ways that they have been articulating in interviews: never identified, he has become an enduring emblem of street violence and the basis of endless stories. He killed at least five prostitutes (or, as they were delicately referred to at the time, “unfortunates”) with ritualistic, obviously well educated precision, often cutting out their genitals or internal organs (livers and uteri), and (perhaps) writing cruel, smug letters to the London newspapers and police department. Though it’s not clear whether any of these letters was genuine, at least one suggested the Ripper’s grim, long-term effect: “One day men will look back and say that I gave birth to the twentieth century.”
It’s a bloody, awful process. The fact that the Hugheses open their film with these words underlines the connections among the street, the century, and the self-consciousness enabled and even necessitated by media, press and movies included. Where other films of the Ripper tale have been chastely spooky, this one vividly exposes the dreadful Victorian moment that produced Jack, with scenes detailing the surgical classes at London Hospital (specifically, the performance of frontal lobotomies, with appalling needles); the Prince of Wales’s “secret” syphilis; the commercial exploitation of John Merrick (the Elephant Man, who first appears in From Hell on the very street where Jack skulks, then again as he’s put on display for a titillated, well-dressed crowd); and everyday horrors endured by poor folks. Filmed in disorienting swish pans, time-lapse, and digital discoloration (the greens here are just painful), the murders are increasingly graphic. And though Peter Deming’s camera never lingers on these violent tableaux, they are nonetheless instantly effective, and with them, the film invites you inside the monster’s mind.
This invitation is proffered through the film’s moral center, intrepid Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), but it’s never easy to accept. Certainly, Abberline is charismatic (he’s Johnny Depp!), but he’s also wracked by dysfunction and personal pain. Aided by his rock-steady associate, Sergeant Godley (Robbie Coltrane), and using the few crude tools available to 19th-century forensics, Abberline studies wounds and crime scenes, consults surgeons, attempts to reconstruct the killer’s thinking, and, most terribly, suffers skitchy, disturbing “visions” of the murders while under the influence of opium and laudanum-laced absinthe.
He’s a sympathetic addict, complete with a recognizable motive (grief over his wife’s death during childbirth a couple of years before), but like the Ripper, he is a product of his environment, a reflection and judgment of urban “progress.” In fact, one of Abberline’s hallucinatory rushes is introduced by the camera’s descent into a gramophone (recalling a similar descent into Jeffrey/Kyle MacLachlan’s ear, in Blue Velvet), as if the machine’s very nature, its capacity for reproduction and artifice, makes it somehow suspect, an emblem of modernity’s continuous collapsing of what’s real or meaningful and what’s not. This indistinction is troubling for any number of reasons, not least for the legal and social confusions it allows (Where is the line between insanity and sanity? Does insanity absolve criminals of responsibility? Can a callous or neglectful society be held accountable for the insanity of its members?) Abberline’s role in this is to embody sober insight and moral perspective while walking, or maybe imagining, the thin line between fact and fiction.
And of course, Abberline’s high offers no escape from his tragic memories or questions about his career choice (to be a cop in this vile time and place simply offers no reward), only more intense perceptions of everything. The high is as metaphorical as it is literal, anyway. You never see Abberline make a street buy, for instance, but when, in search of information, he must mingle with members of high society, his face seems especially pale and his lips tight with distaste, as if he can barely stand it. For, as Abberline knows too well, while the underclass streets put vice and misery on full view, the less visible and more insidious depravity resides in privilege.
This is From Hell‘s point, the monstrosity of the class system that allows the wealthy to believe they’re not responsible for anything but satisfying their own desires. In this, its 1888 London iteration, this system victimizes white women most plainly, but the systemic and results are similar to those versions that the Hugheses have been dissecting in all their work. While the film ennobles the Ripper’s victims, showing Mary and her friends’ heroic efforts to survive—to pay off street punks and bad cops, at the same time that they must solicit the creepiest of clients—it indicts those who observe the Elephant Man with their hands placed delicately over their mouths, or use prostitutes, drink, and drugs as cheap stimulations.
Though Abberline rejects the class sensibility, he nonetheless maintains his own clandestine addiction, and is able to do so in part because of his social standing (Godley covers for him, apparently repeatedly). And so the film constructs a complex condemnation of its primary target—the decadence of what passes for “normal” society—by including its hero as part of the problem. Abberline’s own rejection of the tabloid coverage of the murders, not to mention his inevitably failing efforts to control such coverage, makes him seem even more sympathetic—at the very same time that you are participating in such tabloidish practice, as viewer of this movie. For the storytelling here is all about the storytelling, the ugliness of its material process, the solicitation of readers, the recitation of “facts,” the production of answers.
Still, this insight into the process doesn’t exactly make up for the less-than-convincing conclusion that From Hell comes to regarding the Ripper’s identity. As saturated as it is with remarkable atmosphere and pointed politics, Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias’s script eventually does deliver a villain (and in a decidedly corny way, including some frankly goofy Masonic ritualizing of the murders and their motivations, whereby the film at this point sort of veers into territory already traversed in Eyes Wide Shut: the psycho-sexual gyrations of an all-male club makes for very perverse notions of righteousness and “normalcy”).
To be fair, the film’s educated guess as to the Ripper’s identity is derived from its source, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s remarkable 1999 graphic novel (also called From Hell), and Moore has as much as admitted that this is a guess that is more dramatically and politically expedient than undeniably “factual.” Given the industry that currently exists around the Ripper (which is comparable to the JFK assassination conspiracy), the possibility of a single answer is probably long gone. The many Ripperologists (those enthusiasts who have studied the photos, drawings, descriptions, and reports, handed down now for over 100 years), all have their pet theories, and many of them disbelieve the one promulgated by From Hell, both graphic novel and film. It seems clear enough that the primary function of this identification in the film is to sustain its (the film’s) feminist and class analysis of the time.
Despite this capitulation to convention (that it must name a killer), the film stubbornly and ultimately eschews an emotionally tidy resolution. And so, the Ripper sustains his secret because he is created and protected by his own kind. Abberline’s fate is something else, part tragic and part mythic. The lack of a “happy ending” is, no surprise, of a piece with From Hell‘s most dearly held conviction, that the social, penal, and legal processes given such vivid form by Jack the Ripper continue to this day. And that’s the real story that won’t go away.