This March there are a number of amazing blogathons running, one of which is the Graphic Horror Blogathon over at Flights, Tights, & Movie Nights. This blogathon focuses on horror films adapted from graphic novels, and there are a lot of great films slated for reviews, so it’s well worth checking them out! I chose to write about From Hell (2001, dir. Albert and Allen Hughes), a graphic novel by Alan Moore which I read a long time ago and a film that I remembered enjoying when it was first released.
From Hell tells the story of Jack the Ripper – the mysterious serial killer who preyed upon women in the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. A clairvoyant police detective, Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp) is tasked with investigating the Ripper’s crimes. A young prostitute named Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and her four friends also become involved, and a conspiracy regarding the intention behind the murders becomes evident. Abberline and Kelly become closely involved as Abberline works on tracking down the Ripper, as the conspiracy deepens and links are discovered in higher reaches of society.
The title of From Hell is taken from one of the letters apparently written by Jack the Ripper himself – the ‘From Hell’ letter that details only a snippet of his grotesque fascination with the innards of his victims. The use of this title is probably the closest that the film comes to representing the facts of the Ripper story, as the rest of the film (as well as the graphic novel) does succumb to speculation and conspiracy theories. However, all in all, this isn’t a bad film. The mystery unfolds in an intriguing manner, and the conspiracy theory is presented in a nicely dramatic fashion also, even if it is fictional.
From Hell contains a fairly good performance by Johnny Depp, pre-Pirates of the Caribbean and pre-downfall towards his current role choices. He portrays Inspector Frederick Abberline in a mysterious way, as an opium-addicted professional who can see into the beyond, which is probably the perfect role for Depp. My big issue with his performance in this film is that he whispers almost all of his lines, so the film is either too loud or too quiet when you’re watching it, depending on how you choose to adjust the volume. This is a pretty nitpicky issue, however it does affect your film-watching experience. Depp’s performance is not bad, but his accent is not good at all. The same cannot be said for Heather Graham’s performance, which is quite terrible, with a cringe-worthy Cockney-ish accent to match. I think my favourite performance in this is Ian Holm as Sir William Gull – a prominent surgeon and Freemason who was widely rumoured to be the Ripper himself. Holm’s performance is so creepy and unsettling that he’ll be the one you remember after the credits have finished rolling, instead of Depp and Graham.
My favourite element of From Hell is its visuals and use of colour (no surprises there). The visuals of From Hell are what reminded me most of its graphic novel source material, as the characters are quite different, which author Alan Moore famously hated. There are some amazing images when the Ripper first strikes his victims – he and his prey are shrouded in shadow, hidden in darkness with the bright white flash of his knife stabbing, gradually becoming red with blood. The early murders are shown in brief flashes of gore which are more effective in terms of shock value than some of the later murders, which are shown more clearly. Early on, the camera does not linger on the dead bodies – it looks at them, and then looks away in order to preserve the mystery of the Ripper’s crimes, which was a nice touch. The film makes great use of the colours red and green – red for blood and green for absinthe – particularly during Abberline’s opium fantasies. The costume and set design is also practically perfect. The entire film is a treat for the eyes, even though it can be extremely bloody and gory.
As an adaptation from a graphic novel, despite whatever Alan Moore believes, I think this was almost successful. Although it changed a lot of the characters and some of the story, the film retains the amazing visual quality of its source material, which is what you generally hope for in a graphic novel adaptation. These visuals are coupled with a great score and an intriguing story that is fairly well represented on screen. Although the film’s main protagonists do let themselves down somewhat, and their romance is slightly undeveloped, a great performance by Ian Holm combined with the stunning visuals makes From Hell very memorable indeed.
Watch the trailer here.