From Hell Review
Although many serial killer films tend to end up being nothing more than a random collection of bad one-liners, improbable plot developments and occasional moments of sickening violence, there is something about the classical simplicity of the genre that means that some superb examples of filmmaking emerge from it. Notable examples include Fritz Lang’s M, the Hannibal Lecter trilogy of Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, and David Fincher’s Se7en. The only surprise is that the most famous serial killer ever, Jack the Ripper, has not had more films made about him; apart from a few slasher B-movies and TV series, the only major works are Hitchcock’s The Lodger and the underrated and virtually unseen Murder by Decree, which took the daring narrative device of having Christopher Plummer’s Sherlock Holmes and James Mason’s Dr Watson solve the mystery of who Jack the Ripper actually was.
Their ultimate conclusion is not a million miles from that reached by the Holmes and Watson substitutes in From Hell, Inspector Abberline (Depp), the drug-addicted clairvoyant policeman, and Sgt Godley, (Coltrane) his no-nonsense, Shakespeare-quoting sidekick. However, the baroquely grandiose conspiracy theory gradually unveiled here appears to implicate virtually everyone in Victorian society, while simultaneously stage-managing a love affair between the widowed Abberline and Mary Kelly (Graham), the most picturesque of the prostitutes being carved up by Jack the Ripper, for reasons that may or may not be linked to any or none of the Royal Family, the progressive medical establishment, the Freemasons, syphilis, the Loch Ness monster, Lewis Carroll, the Elephant Man, frontal lobotomies and British class hypocrisy. A heady brew, then, and one that succeeds dramatically and intellectually far more often than it doesn’t.
On the (superb) commentary track, Rafael Yglesias, writer of the script for this and, more famously, the play Death and the Maiden, mentions that he originally wanted to base the screenplay closely on the graphic novel; namely, he wished to explore Jack the Ripper’s mind, and have the film follow his descent into madness, rather than simply follow the film as a whodunnit mystery; of course, he wryly notes, studio pressure ensured that such a film was deeply uncommercial and would be unlikely to appeal to a mass audience. However, Yglesias’ script works extremely well when it concentrates on the Ripper, his terrified but all-too-willing coachman Netley (Flemyng), and the disturbing paraphernalia of the various murders, which are rendered horribly but comparatively impressionistically; a slash here, a jet of blood there, and Trevor Jones’ doom-laded score emphasising the horror. By way of contrast, the romantic subplot between Abberline and Mary Kelly, which thankfully has little development or screen time, feels hackneyed and unworthy of Depp’s fine performance. (On first glance, incidentally, Graham’s performance feels perfectly acceptable, but subsequent viewings reveal that she is as convincing a 19th-century whore as Dick Van Dyke was an Edwardian Cockney chimney sweep.)
Yglesias also reveals that he saw the film as being about sexual hypocrisy, not just as an odd reference, but permeating the entire bones of the film. To a large extent, this is borne out by the final product. It’s something of a truism that the Victorian era was typified by excessive restraint amongst the middle and upper classes- table legs being covered in muslin so as not to excite their sensibilities was not uncommon- and an almost hedonistic drive for sexual release amongst the working classes, who used the working girls for carnal release. A minor disappointment is that the film, for the most part, only portrays extremes. There is a superb scene early on when John Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, is revealed to a group of doctors, society ladies and upper-class onlookers, whose almost orgasmic squeals of horrified delight are far more revealing than their subsequent, eager willingness to produce their cheque books ‘in a good cause’; the film wryly implies that they, too, are paying for the gratification of their socially acceptable lusts in no baser a way than a man who gives a whore a penny after drunkenly copulating with her against a fence.
The film looks extremely good throughout, with the unconventional use of Prague interiors for those of Victorian London gives the film a (possibly unintentional) sense of the dream-like; here, Abberline’s semi-clairvoyant hallucinations become relevant, as, rather than cheap visual gimmicks, they add to the sense of surrealism and distance, where, as mentioned before, everyone is either a suspect or a potential victim. It is to the Hughes brothers’ credit that they never attempt to force gimmicky camera effects onto the narrative for the sake of a cheap thrill, or even that they try and make the film look unnecessarily lush; if the film is a dream of some kind, then it’s surely closer to a nightmare than the London of Merchant Ivory. Their previous films, Menace 2 Society and the underrated Dead Presidents were damned with faint praise as ‘ghetto movies’, although both are far more than that. Therefore, their comments about how they saw Victorian London as ‘the original ‘hood’, which at first might smack of a lack of understanding of the subject, are in fact far more thoughtful and intelligent than they appear; the film is obviously limited in sphere and scope by being a mere two hours long- a literal adaptation of the graphic novel would last for several hours longer- but manages to touch on such themes as religious intolerance, loathing of foreigners (the first comment of Charles Warren (Richardson), Abberline’s superior, is ‘Well, no Englishman could have done it!’) and the rise of the pimps and gangs in the ghetto.
The film is not perfect; as mentioned before, Graham is miscast, proving yet again that she really is just a pretty face and that her performance in Boogie Nights was a fluke. Likewise, although the grand conspiracy theory is certainly convincing and dramatically effective, it’s also a bit hard to accept that anything so messy and unpleasant could just be tied up with some neatness. All the same, this is a genuinely first-rate film, working as a suspenseful (if never terrifying) thriller, an examination of Victorian society, and an intelligent look at who Jack the Ripper might actually have been, as well as why, exactly, society needed to create such a figure; despite its comparatively poor showing at the box office, this is a film that will undoubtedly be re-evaluated in years to come.
Fox have become synonymous with superb transfers on their DVDs, and this proves to be no exception. Colours are breathtakingly clear and vivid, the occasional use of different film stocks to denote Abberline’s visions are shown exceptionally well, and the anamorphic 2.35:1 picture is superbly presented throughout. Every other studio that produces DVDs should look at the quality of presentation on Fox’s recent work as a benchmark to which they should aspire; this flawless effort is no exception, and is a very, very pleasing presentation of the film.
A DTS track is provided, which is breathtakingly clear and crisp throughout, making far more use of the surrounds than a traditional ‘period film’ might be expected to do; of course, this is hardly Sense and Sensibility! Dialogue is clear and superbly presented, and the grimly Gothic score- which, on occasion, has some very clever aural tricks played with it to distort it and make it sound more menacing- comes through superbly. The Dolby track does almost as good a job as well, although there is a slight but noticeable absence of clarity present at some points, which really makes the DTS track the one to go with.
Fox DVD producers, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways; for a start, they have managed to produce DVDs of a consistently high calibre, both technically and in terms of extras, both in their ‘Five Star’ series of special editions and in their versions of modern films, such as Moulin Rouge, The French Connection, The Phantom Menace, Planet of the Apes and now this, to name but a few. Thankfully, even the films that made nary an impression at the box office receive superb treatment, such as Donnie Darko and Joy Ride; of course, the flipside is that, for those who dislike the film in the first place, no amount of extras will change that judgement. However, this is equally true of Criterion’s work, who have attracted their fair share of followers who will buy a film because it’s produced by them; although Fox will never quite match the in-depth supplementary material of Criterion’s absolute peak work, they come extremely close at times, and this disc is easily comparable to 95% of their output. It’s worth noting, incidentally, that this is a ‘Director’s Limited Edition’, and that the second disc will soon be deleted and the price reduced; needless to say, it’s worth picking up while it’s still available.
On the first disc, after some atmospheric animated menus, there is a superb commentary track featuring the Hughes brothers, Yglesias, the cinematographer and Robbie Coltrane. All were recorded separately, which sometimes makes for a dry and stilted experience, but not so here; instead, a fascinatingly wide range of material is discussed, from the difficulties of getting the film made, its comparatively poor showing at the box office and the less-than-helpful studio interference, to the difficulties in adapting the novel, the problems of reconciling ‘the truth’ as it is understood with intelligent historical speculation and, of course, the social and sexual problems of England at the time. The brothers Hughes originally announced that they did not feel worthy of recording a commentary track; they later repented, on the grounds that they wished it to be of use to other filmmakers and those genuinely interested in film as an art. Needless to say, it is unlikely to appeal to the casual viewer, but is still fine stuff. There are also twenty-odd deleted scenes on the first disc, with an alternate ending and optional commentary from Albert Hughes; surprisingly, these are far less interesting than they sound, being mostly short and inconsequential snippets than add nothing to the film, apart from a little more focus on Netley and an effective brief scene of crank letter writers pretending to be the Ripper.
The second disc, meanwhile, does not swamp the viewer with material, but instead has a few, well-chosen and genuinely interesting extras that, like Criterion’s best work, occasionally goes off on what appears to be a tangent to the film but still manages to act as an informative guide to part of it. First up is a 30-minute documentary about Jack the Ripper, which is a no-nonsense look at the various murder suspects, the identities of the various suspects, as well as some of the more far-out theories (not to spoil anything, but I’m still waiting for someone to try and suggest that, in fact, Oscar Wilde was the Ripper, if only on the grounds that he, too, enjoyed cruising the streets of London looking for, er, ‘action’…). Hardly the last word in Ripperology- those interested in that should look at Stephen Knight’s excellent book, The Final Solution- but a very interesting complementary piece to the film all the same. There are also occasional links to a rather vintage TV documentary on the Ripper, which is included in its 45-minute entirety as an Easter Egg; it’s probably best watched in small doses, given its dated approach and rather heavy-handed attitude towards the subject.
The next extras are a shorter bunch of the dreaded ‘featurettes’; however, all these eschew the usual film clips and ‘I play’ nonsense (with the unlovely exception of the HBO special, which is not worth bothering with) in favour of concentrating on far more interesting topics. First is a piece on the production design, which explores why Prague came to be used as a stand-in for Victorian London (financial reasons), and why a vast exterior set of Whitechapel needed to be built all the same outside the city. With some fascinating details about Prague itself (which, with films such as Blade 2 and Mission Impossible all making prominent use of it, is enjoying a fair bit of exposure at the moment), this is well worth watching. On a similar note, there is a ‘tour of the murder sites’ with the Hughes brothers; more light-hearted in execution that most of the other extras, this is not a culture-clash piece of them visiting the real East End, but instead a tour of the set, complete with shots of the frighteningly-convincing looking prosthetic dead bodies, which the Hughes make some grimly amusing banter about.
Finally, there are a couple of short but very interesting pieces, one on the adaptation from the graphic novel and one on how ‘absinthe makes the heart grow fonder’. Aficionados of the novel have complained that the film is not an especially faithful adaptation of the book, and the featurette looks at the necessity of the changes that were made, as well as the examples of where the film follows the drawings almost to the frame. The only absence here is any input from Alan Moore, who is apparently so laid-back about the film’s existence that he has expressed his intention of only seeing it on video at some stage. (Certainly, this DVD presentation does the film, and, by inference, his work proud!) Meanwhile, the absinthe featurette is dryly funny and informative, as it looks at a few connoisseurs of the demonic drink, and deals with its history; amazingly, Britain is one of the few countries where it is still legal to buy it, if you should wish to drink yourself into an early grave in the company of people who bear an uncanny resemblance to Withnail. A couple of trailers and the dire HBO special, hosted by Graham in a pleasant-looking red dress, round off a very strong collection of extras.
From Hell is a film that was never really intended to be a $100 million blockbuster (then again, neither was Se7en, but never mind), but is instead likely to gain in appeal over the years as an intelligent, thoughtful look at a variety of surprisingly deep and complex themes- for a taster, imagine Jack the Ripper as the direct product of the Romantic movement in art and literature in the early part of the century- which are executed stylishly and intelligently. Fox maintain their position as consistently the best mainstream DVD producer with a special edition that really is special, with top-class picture and sound, and a wide range of genuinely interesting extras. Unreservedly recommended.