Jack the Ripper made his debut in 1888, the year after Sherlock Holmes, and the two embody competing visions of Victorian England. Holmes was a West Ender, prosperous, decorous, and rational; Jack committed his grisly, unexplained murders in the East End, whose deprivation gave the lie to bourgeois Victorian notions of British progress and enlightenment. The central conceit of Allen and Albert Hughes’ skillful but predictable From Hell is a familiar one: Jack was simply ahead of his time. Whereas Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time transported the Ripper into murderous 1970s America to prove his prescience, From Hell has the villain crow to his pursuer that “I gave birth to the 20th century.”
The film takes its title from one of the many letters purportedly sent by the Ripper to London newspapers and officials in 1888. The “From Hell” missivereceived by a prominent East End Marxistcame with half a human kidney, which some believe was removed from one of Jack’s victims. Yet most scholars of the case doubt that any of the communiqués actually came from the murderer, whohis subsequent mythologizers asidedidn’t reveal a taste for Hannibal Lecter-like showmanship. Indeed, the thing that clinched the Ripper’s rep was his elusiveness. He vanished like a wraith after a mere 10 weeks of notoriety, leaving five (or more) murdered prostitutes as the only verifiable evidence of his existence. That makes Jack a useful boy, available for all sorts of piquant but unprovable conspiracy theories. Many of them are entertained in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel, which was adapted for this movie by scripters Terry Hayes (Mad Max) and Rafael Yglesias (Fearless): Jack was a Jew, a Freemason, a surgeon, a policeman, a member of the royal family, or most of the above.
None of the speculations can ever be confirmed, so the Ripper seems a suitable subject for an anti-Holmesian tale, one that surrenders to the universe’s chaos and incomprehensibility. Victorian detective stories, and most of their subsequent imitators, are as reliable as a well-made clock, with every clue assigned its proper place by the conclusion. Yet there’s an alternate mystery-story tradition, born from surrealism, Freudian psychology, and other critiques of lucidity, that flourished with the arrival of cinema and its ability to juxtapose images into a sort of waking dream. Because From Hell’s protagonist, Inspector Abberline, is an opium enthusiast, you might expect an East End Mulholland Drive, all phantoms and unresolved perils. (In fact, the title character of an early David Lynch movie, The Elephant Man, makes a brief appearance here.) Save for a few green-tinted hallucinations, however, the Hughes brothers prove themselves eminent neo-Victorians.
The directors have identified the 1880s East End as just another ghetto, a precursor to the 1990s South Central of their Menace II Society. For all its painstakingly art-directed grime, however, From Hell looks more upscale. Shot in the Czech Republic with a mostly British cast, the movie is exceedingly tidy, although the murders themselves get progressively messier: Whereas the first is depicted simply with flashes of a knife in the dark, the last is rather too gory for Masterpiece Theatre. Even when arterial blood is spurting, though, the revelations arrive like clockwork. And each revisionist provocationlobotomy, lesbianism, and laudanum, to name threeplays like another item on a checklist.
Indeed, the plot will offer few surprises to Ripper buffs. Before the first victim is slain and disemboweled, it’s already been hinted that Jack’s prey aren’t chosen at random. Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and her fellow good-hearted whores (who include Naked stars Katrin Cartlidge and Lesley Sharp) are menaced by a protection racket, but there’s another, shadier force tracking them. Conventionally unconventional Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) and his faithful aide, Godley (Robbie Coltrane), soon come to suspect that the Ripper is an educated man: He seems skilled at dissection and may know Masonic lore. Abberline’s superiors and the members of the Special Branch, who protect the queen and the royal family, are not amused by Abberline’s theories; one imperious cop argues that the murderer could not possibly be an Englishman and might be a “red Indian” touring with a Wild West show. The only upper-crust type who’s prepared to help Abberline is Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), a physician to the royal family. Meanwhile, Jack goes practically unglimpsed; we see only his queasy coachman (Jason Flemyng).
Enthusiasts may thrill to watching their favorite theories not merely dramatized but taken to an orderly conclusion. (Of course, many books and a few movies have already done something similar.) The filmmakers’ idea of order, however, includes not resisting a single cliché, from such visual devices as homages to German expressionism and a shock cut to some bloody meat (both likely borrowed from Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula) to such narrative staples as mistaken identity, Abberline’s backstory trauma, the romance that develops between him and Mary, and the final images of salvation from the evil city. Tumbling into the abyss, the film doesn’t muss a hair or break a period conventionat least not until the Marilyn Manson song starts over the end credits. From Hell follows the crazed Ripper, but its heart belongs to the methodical Holmes. CP