"How long have you been chasing the dragon?"
- Sir William Gull
From Hell is widely regarded as one of the best serialized graphic
novels -- that's comic books to you and me -- of the modern era, right up there
with Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns.
It is a brilliantly told, expertly researched document of the Jack the Ripper
killings in Whitechapel, London, in 1888, a 500 page masterpiece by Alan Moore
and Eddie Campbell.
But this isn't about the comic book, as much as it could be; it instead concerns
the new film, sharing the same name as the graphic novel. Unlike most other
comic properties, though, this one stays true to the source -- as much as possible
given a two hour time frame, that is. Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, best
known as the writers and directors of Dead Presidents and Menace
II Society, the story penned by Moore and Campbell and adapted for the
screen by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias comes to life in gloriously dark and
As many people as there are that know the story of Jack the Ripper, the first
'serial killer,' there is a notable lack of punctuation to the tale. While many
theories abound -- he was a common Londoner, a doctor, a sick British prince
-- there is no definitive answer to the identity of the killer. Moore, though,
weaves all of the theories into an epic exploration of the mystery, and his
telling is ultimately one of the most interesting and satisfying stories, not
just of the Ripper but also of the period.
An initial criticism of the movie was the casting of Johnny Depp in the role
of drug-addicted widower Inspector Abberline (for those comic readers out there,
one of the few changes made from paper to screen). He was, after all, coming
off of roles in Blow (as drug addict) and Sleepy Hollow
(a period piece, as detective). On your way into the theater, feel free to focus
on these images all you like; within minutes, the thoughts will be gone. Ted
Demme and Tim Burton painted pictures that were darkly comic (and in Burton's
case more than a little wacky); the Hughes brothers are working with brushes
and oils more touched with the street, and Depp in turn gives one of his most
darkly realistic performances ever.
The rest of the cast is outstanding as well. Heather Graham, though normally
a quick target for any bad acting criticisms that I might have, turns in a fine
performance as Mary Kelly, the (supposed) fifth victim of Jack the Ripper. Robbie
Coltrane's Sergeant Godley is lightly played as the comic relief of the movie;
his Shakespeare quoting, consistently over the heads of those around him, is
not only subtly played, but also indicative of the period. Perhaps the best
performance of all, though, is turned in by Ian Holm as Sir William Gull, the
What may be the most amazing thing about the film is the realism that suffuses
everything, from the story to the sets to the culture on display. While a large
part of this can be attributed to Moore (the appendices in the books are as
fascinating as the story itself), credit must also be given to the directors.
Although filmed in Prague, you might never know that it wasn't really London
if not informed otherwise. Reportedly, the brothers referred to photographs,
history books, and the graphic novels in constructing each scene and set. Their
effort shows; for two hours, it is too easy to become immersed in the soot and
ash of London, to trod the brick path, to smell the horse manure.
As might be expected, given the story, there are some intense moments in the
film. The violence feels both more and less graphic than it really is; there
are moments in the film that are guaranteed to turn heads, if not stomachs.
Still, as brutal as those moments are, there is a certain unflinching sensitivity
to them; the blood is not presented to shock, but rather to document, to record
a moment with honesty.
There is a fine line, at times, between fiction and reality. While definitely
a fictionalized account of the Ripper and his story, there are moments when
it almost feels more like a documentary told through fiction. The film is equally
cinematic and real, with even the most fantastic moments seemingly ripped from
a history book. Not even the score intrudes on the moments, appropriately heightening
the atmosphere without stepping into the spotlight.
The one major difference between the film and the graphic novel is the focus
of the story. While Moore reveals the identity of Jack almost immediately, the
film forces you to wait, wondering if the killer will ever stand unmasked. This
turns what was originally a blunt exploration of what happened (and, perhaps
more importantly, why) into a traditional, suspenseful whodunnit mystery. While
purists may bemoan the shift in tone, it actually works better this way, given
the medium. The ending, from what was overheard in the lobby after the film,
is appropriately shocking and, presumably, satisfying, as all the pieces put
in motion throughout the film fall into place.
From Hell will probably not make it into the pantheon of film
on a parallel with its source, but it is definitely worthy of sharing the same
name. With a strong cast, beautiful cinematography, and outstanding direction,
the film deserves notice as more than a horror film. With any luck, it will
get the Hughes brothers known as more than "black directors" -- and
perhaps even draw attention to the graphic novels.