‘…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.