Comic Book Movie July – From Hell

From Hell is a strange name for a movie (or a graphic novel, for that matter). One would expect the subject to be something like Hellboy - a character straight from hell, or a hellish story at least. But this is not the case with Alan Moore’s comic book From Hell and naturally also not with the movie based on it. It’s both much simpler and much more horrifying: From Hell was the return address on one of the letters the police and press received during the brutal serial killings of Jack the Ripper, claiming to come from the murderer.

Jack the Ripper has long been one of the most famous serial killers. His killing and mutilating of several women in London in 1988 (and possibly earlier and later) has been the stuff of many legends, books and theories. Even today, the question of the identity of Jack the Ripper – who was never caught – fascinates many people. (Casebook, a website dedicated to research into this topic, provides a wide array of information about the murders, the victims, possible suspects and other things related to the topic – for those that want to delve into that.) Moore uses a popular yet unlikely theory for his well-researched story – a royal conspiracy to protect the throne. Not only does a royal doctor get involved, but the Freemasons as well. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at the rest of the story – and at the film itself.

All the characters in From Hell are historical figures, more or less distorted. The main character is Inspector Abberline, played with his usual mix of charm and creepiness by Johnny Depp. We first meet Abberline in an opium den, where he is “chasing the dragon” to enhance his prophetic visions and dreams – both characteristics that the historical Abberline does not possess. The Inspector is assisted in his investigation by Sergeant Godley (Robbie Coltrane, today mostly known as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies), another historical character, who in reality probably never met Abberline. This gives you a pretty good idea how From Hell treats historical facts – it follows them as long as they are convenient, but when the story demands a change, they are largely ignored.

The investigation of the Whitechapel murders (that are only later attributed to Jack the Ripper) lead Abberline to the Irish “unfortunate woman” (i.e. prostitute) Mary Kelly, from whose circle of companions (not customers) the victims are taken. Heather Graham takes on this role in her usual candid take on acting, however, her limited ability is clearly distracting from the otherwise superb main cast, rounded out by Ian Holm, who plays Sir William Gull, a royal doctor who assists Abberline in his investigation.

Slowly, the story departs from a simple investigation of a series of brutal murders to a complex investigation into a conspiracy to cover up the “misdeeds” of Queen Victoria’s grandson. Abberline makes constant progress, while being stopped by his superior officers and encountering trouble from the special branch – of whom Godley poignantly says: “You do not fuck with the special branch, the special branch fucks with you.” Nevertheless Abberline continues his investigation, even when officially suspended from it. Why? Well, obviously because, true to storytelling clichés, he has fallen in love with Mary Kelly and will do everything he can to protect her. But if you expect that this means a happy Hollywood ending for everyone involved, you haven’t counted on Alan Moore, who always infuses his story with a gritty realism that is often dispiriting. Jack the Ripper fans (if one may call people interested in these cases that) will know that not everything will end well for Kelly.

From Hell is a deeply unnerving tale of not just the five canonical Ripper killings but also of the world and society that surrounds them – portrayed in the film with amazing attention to detail. Moore’s take on what happened may not be the most likely, but it is certainly one of the most interesting theories. However, the movie deludes some of that in order to reach a more widespread audience. But the comic origins are still visible. Some of the shots foreshadow the work that another pair of brothers (The Hughes Brothers are responsible for this film, the Wachowski Brothers of Matrix fame later adapted V for Vendetta) and especially Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller will later employ. Some scenes seem to be taken directly from a graphic novel, including beautiful shots of a London skyline set against a setting sun. Nevertheless, the comic book origin is not always obvious in this film – too far removed from traditional comic fare is the subject matter. From Hell could just as well be based on a novel or been written for the screen. But in the early days of comic book movies that depart from the formula, that was probably to be expected – and is not necessarily a bad thing.

From Hell was neither a commercial nor a critical success. And not even the comic’s creator was happy with it. Alan Moore, who is often considered the greatest writer of modern age graphic novels (he doesn’t draw them himself), had one more story adapted to the big screen (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) before deciding that he wanted nothing more to do with Hollywood. This means that on both V for Vendetta and the upcoming Watchmen (another story by Moore that I can highly recommend and that will make for an interesting movie viewing experience), his name was removed from the credits. He stated that it hurt too much to have his characters taken away and ruined by other people. Nevertheless, From Hell paved the way for more unusual comic book adaptations – not necessarily for Ghost World, which was made at the same time, but certainly for the other films that will be reviewed later this month.

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