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Monday 22 October 2001

From Hell

Directed by Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes
Written by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
Starring Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm
Rating: R
Length: 137 min

Reviewed by John Shirley

(Exclusive to Locus Online)

From Hell? Yes and from the murky history of Jack the Ripper—and from Coppola, stylistically, in many respects. There are visual echoes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in this muscular adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel. And there are fantasy elements that link it to Dracula—not only the handling of the story, but the use of the supernatural, of clairvoyance, of Masonic ritual carried to the point of diabolism; references to coursing channels of secret energies... And the hint that “Jack” might’ve been possessed...

Johnny Depp is fine, if just faintly a touch too understated—doing the accent quite believably—as a Cockney police Inspector, addicted to opium and absinthe, who uses his visions to enhance his surprisingly clear-headed police work. Heather Graham as Mary Kelly, the whore and Johnny’s love interest, is effective, does very well, better acting than she’s pulled off before. Ian Holm is fine—many good performances...

But it’s the “comic” book, the graphic novel, that is the damp skeleton here, that finally informs this film. From Hell is the best adaptation of a comic book since The Crow and, at the risk of disloyalty on my part, probably a better movie than the latter. (At least none of the principals were killed by bungling movie makers... oh hell, I think it’s a better film). The Crow is another valid comparison stylistically, too—the Hughes Brothers’ take on the urban degeneracy of Victorian London, circa 1888, is not so very unlike the inner city gothic of the tragic Alex Proyas film.

Comparisons aside, this movie is visually exciting, cunningly wrought, and genuinely suspenseful. There are visual images—the contrapuntal flashing of Jack the Ripper’s scalpel in that first pitch dark alley scene, the exacting reproduction of the paraphernalia, the procedure of the Green Fairy, absinthe—that will stay with me forever.

The Hell in both the Hughes Brothers’ film and Moore’s gorgeous original was the misery of class-oppression in Whitechapel; in all of England really: the heavy hand of the industrial age, the choking skies, the casual use of whores and the casual discarding of them. The moral offhandedness with which a surgeon uses impoverished patients for guinea pigs—albeit a part of the plot, it’s also clearly a part of life. In fact the portrayal of class snobbishness is perhaps too heavily laid on, in this picture, and there are aspects of the movie that could have had more depth. It lacks the artistic resonance of Topsy-Turvy—a fine film set in roughly the same era.

From Hell closely follows the graphic novel which itself closely followed a theory that the Ripper murders had to do with killings carried out to cover up the indiscretions of the heir to the British throne, and were complicated by Masonic ritual and Masonic conspiracy... All of which, while not closely argued, is at least neatly laid out in the film. The pacing is sharp, and it takes us beat by beat through Johnny Depp’s detecting, weaving it with editing that will probably get an Academy Award—will surely be nominated for it—and a very evocative use of collaging which again smacks of Coppola’s version of Dracula.

Some of the hostility toward this film is puzzling—it may be that it’s a bit gory (though not so much as many other films, like Scream) and post September 11, reviewers are instinctively protecting us. It has been dismissed as a fancy slasher film—but it’s far more than that. It’s ultimately a film about class war. And we should remember that the Hughes Brothers made Menace II Society and Dead Presidents...

The film lacks a certain depth, yes: its plot hides its people. The Hughes Brothers and their able scripters don’t quite make the romance come alive. We buy Heather and Johnny’s characters falling in love—but we don’t deeply believe in their romance. But this rather busy film can only do so much—it’s very much a “graphic novel” with all that genre’s limitations. Finally, though, it’s an atmospheric, beautifully shot gothic valentine...from Hell.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure books) and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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