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From Hell

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2001 1 Jan
From Hell
from Film Forum, 10/25/01

Jack the Ripper's grisly London crimes caused such a circus of news, mythmaking, and conspiracy theories that he remains one of the most famous serial killers. Numerous novels and films have told his story, but he has remained enigmatic and troubling. Adapted from a grim graphic novel, From Hell (named for the return address used by the killer) is a spectacular, stylish film from the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society). Brooding, opium-addicted detective Frederick George Abberline (Johnny Depp) tries to track down the killer, whose exploits he has foreseen in his drug-induced dreams. The targets are prostitutes in London's East End, and viewers are brought into this haunted, hunted circle. When Abberline convinces one of these desperate, impoverished women, Mary (Heather Graham), to help him, "only in Hollywood" romance begins.

Sometimes studying the methods of evil can help well-intentioned viewers understand their enemy. Or it can act as a cautionary tale about steps that lead to devastating wickedness. From Hell, according to most religious media critics, falls far short of these possible merits.

"From Hell is a suitable description of this film," says Preview's John Adair. He warns viewers away due to "graphic descriptions of what the killer has done." He also complains of too much onscreen skin in the scenes involving the prostitutes.

But Carole McDonnell at Christian Spotlight on the Movies sees an important theme threading through the plot: "The film speaks against prejudice. Those who happen to be rich because of an accident of birth believe themselves to be more moral than the minority or the disenfranchised. In Victorian London … no one wants to believe that a gentleman might be responsible for any of these crimes." Still, the film disappoints her: "The love story is weak. The story is slow and there are gaping holes in the plot. For instance, why doesn't [the inspector] tell the girls that the killer snares his victims with grapes?"

The U.S. Catholic Conference's critic was thoroughly dissatisfied: "Substituting gruesome visuals for suspenseful drama, [this] conventional film is revolting in its imagery, with one-note characters, sloppy narrative and lackluster performances."

I appreciated the way the film raised questions about how our social and racial prejudices affect the way we interpret "the news," such as the Whitechapel killings of 1888. It reminded me of the Oklahoma City bombing, which immediately drove the media and the public (myself included) into speculating which Middle Eastern terrorist group might be responsible.

Unfortunately, the questions raised in From Hell are quickly knocked aside by the urgency of style and suspense. (If the historical context of these events intrigues you, the graphic novel on which the film is based is loaded with research.) Intelligent dialogue gives way to adrenaline-rush action, flurries of special effects and rapid-cut editing, and far more gore than is necessary. Long after we've been informed of the killer's methods, we're forced to watch gratuitous scenes depicting them. It's easier to turn a viewer's stomach with the sight of blood than it is to develop a moral objection to the thinking that leads to such butchery.