From Hell


‘…a terrific, literate and genuinely scary thriller to savour…’

‘…at least they got the address right…’ quips Robbie Coltrane with reference to the title of the Hughes Brothers 2001 thriller; indeed, this violent thriller might as well come special delivery from Hades basement division, since it pushes the limits of the 18/R certificate pretty hard. From Hell was a number one hit at the US box-office, but has been little seen since, with no sequels, reboots or re-workings to speak of. Adapted from Alan Moore’s comic book, From Hell apparently fell short of the author’s vision of the story, but even in this form, it’s streets ahead of most films on the subject of Jack the Ripper.

Perhaps it’s a casting issue; From Hell was mooted to star Sean Connery and Nigel Hawthorne, before both men dropped out of the project and were replaced by Johnny Depp and Ian Holm. Holm is more than a close fit to Hawthorne in the role of Queen’s surgeon Sir William Gull, but Depp was a good four decades younger than Connery would have been, causing extensive re-writes, and Moore complained that his gruff protagonist has transformed into a dandy. That may be true, but for those who don’t know the source material, Depp gives a dynamic performance here that provides a happy centre to this period policier. Depp plays Inspector Abberline, a opium-soaked policeman entrusted to solve the Whitechapel murders; Heather Graham is one of the girls fighting back.

Perhaps as a hold-over from the original castings, the support is A-list, with Robbie Coltrane and Ian Richardson assisting Abberline’s quest, and Katrin Cartlidge and Susan Lynch also making an impression as victims. The Hughes brothers had made a huge impression with their first two films (Menance to Society and Dead Presidents) and bring a similar street-energy here, with burst of experimental film weirdness to set against the roster of mint British acting talent.  Depp was arguably too green to play a credible Inspector, but like Brad Pitt in David Fincher’s Se7en, the actor streamrollers through any credibility issues associated with his age and makes the role work; the material shared with 1979’s excellent Murder by Decree doesn’t hurt the film either.

Perhaps that mix wasn’t to the public taste, but From Hell plays out like a souped-up, all-star Hammer horror film, with lashings of action and gore; the corpse on the roof of a speeding carriage is a notable shock-scene, with a unfortunate cranium getting caught in the wooden spokes of a wheel to gruesome effect. Perhaps From Hell might have been more widely appreciated with an alternative cast, but with Depp playing down his comic impulses, this is a terrific, literate and genuinely scary thriller to savour.


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    • I think this film is massively underseen, and I’m not sure why; very commercial, great cast, production and energy. Thanks for the positive input, great to hear from someone else who appreciates this one!

  1. How gruesome and salacious are we talking? I like Depp as an actor but after watching The Ninth Gate, (or whatever number it was) I’ve stayed away from a lot of his films.

  2. Excellent comparisons and background; not too many Ripperologists admired the casting or plot details. Then again, it was based, as you say, on a fictional comic, and loosely around the theory that Q Victoria’s grandson was complicit though not actually a killer (a theory proposed by Ripper researcher Stephen Knight and others). Another book (folded into From Hell) alleged painter Walter Sickert was Jack. This theory was pursued by many, including mystery writer Patricia Cornwell, who sunk over $2M into proving her theory. If told correctly, the story of Jack the Ripper(s) is beyond gory, especially the alleged last murder–that of Mary Kelly. The main murders occurred between Aug and Nov, so you’ll see many Ripper movies paraded out during this time, like J the R, the London Slasher; an update to The Lodger; and the series Whitechapel and Ripper Street… I’ve missed the last 2 Ripper UK conferences–meanwhile lots of new books and theories have been published. One in particular should be worth a cinematic retelling??? Thanks much for shining the spotlight on crime!

    • I’m keen on Murder by Decree in particular, but you clearly have gone way further through the looking glass in terms of knowledge, and I appreciate the education. Fiction can sometimes reveal more than fact, and this entertaining version of events poses some interesting questions; the Knight theory also works for me as complicity is what British life is frequently about. There’s certainly room for a fresh take on this story, and From Hell balances lurid detail with more sober analysis…Chariots of the Gods coming soon, I’m determined to give conspiracy theories a more respectable name !

    • Good shout. I liked The Libertine a lot, even if it’s well out of synch with today’s notions of a Depp vehicle; another literate film!

    • I can see that; he’s really far too young for the role, but I do think he brings a bit of gravity too it. Given Moore’s reservations, retooling this with an older lead for streaming would seem a no-brainer…

  3. Wife and I watched this last year as she was on a Ripper high. It was the second time for me as I watched it around the time it came out. Still appreciate how gruesome this film was. Some one actually reviewed the Moore comic in January and I never knew it was based of off that comic. Great review.

  4. Haven’t seen this since around the time it came out. I seem to remember Depp pulling things in a comic direction, intentionally or not. I’ll have to go back now and check.

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