From Hell (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna


Scoop's notes

It's 19th century London. Police inspector Johnny Depp tracks down Jack the Ripper. To make matters more interesting, Depp has psychic powers and a serious problem with drug abuse. As it turns out, the Whitechapel murders are part of a Watergate-style cover-up which reaches even to the highest levels of the government and the royal family. The Ripper himself is an educated and arrogant aristocrat, respected in many circles, but clearly nutty as a fruitcake.

At one point Rippy asserts that he is the midwife of the 20th century, a claim which has some truth to it. The Ripper's actions were, after all, shocking to a society which prided itself on basic decency, in which the violence mostly involved drunken members of the underclasses committing spontaneous mayhem. A coldly calculated series of murder/mutilations was out of the question. If you were unfamiliar with The Ripper and heard his crimes described, you would immediately picture the late 20th century, a psychopathic serial killer, probably in an American city. A report of Jack's crimes in today's papers would not surprise us, nor would the suggestion that he was an educated man with a sophisticated thought process. We've been there and done that, but the literate 19th century Englishmen, who viewed themselves as the most civilized member of the world's most civilized country, had not been there until Jack provided the transportation. So in that sense, The Ripper's claim to having invented the 20th century was as hood as Rimbaud's. If Jack did not create our century, he certainly prefigured it in his own milieu. 

The story takes the 20th century parallel even deeper, and makes the official cover-up seem to be the first something-gate scandal. "Look for a man with a thorough knowledge of human anatomy", says one expert to Inspector Johnny Depp. Depp then uses his psychic powers to perform a mental arrest of Hugh Hefner, who was then writing "Ye Olde Recreational Lad" magazine, but the inspector has to reject that theory because Hef was already in his 60's in 1888, and could not have performed the demanding physical tasks performed by The Ripper.


The most interesting question about this film is this -

Why did American critics love it and British critics savage it? It was a three star film in America, one and a half in England.

I mean, it's still the same film isn't it? It's a dark, brooding, almost surreal portrait of the seamy underbelly of Victorian England, pervaded with the sense of evil. The whole place feels unclean. This is not a time and place that you would like to visit if you acquire time-travel capability.

So why did the crits hate it in England?

Many of the British reviewers focused on the presumed incompetence of the American interlopers, especially Graham, who seemed woefully out of place as a 19th century urban prostitute. She seems to have been placed into this setting from another time and profession. In addition to a Dick van Dyke accent, she has a clear complexion and perfect capped teeth, making her the envy of 19th century prostitutes everywhere. Certain London neighborhoods were filled with prostitutes at the time. Most of them and their exploiters are portrayed accurately, as foul creatures with decaying teeth and diseases and outrageous accents. For a quick refresher course, let us remember that the late 19th century was a period of modern city life with modern city problems, but no modern medicine. This disparity was particularly devastating to human life in the warfare of the time. Most of you have seen some portrayal of the wars of that period, in which the soldiers have been torn apart by modern weapons, but have no modern pain drugs, anesthesia, or surgical techniques. Picture the Civil War hospital scenes, in which the battered limbless soldiers lie in anguish, and the primitive surgery is performed on them with no anesthesia but whiskey. Victims of urban decay were not as unfortunate as war victims, but they had no cure for sexually transmitted diseases, and the lower classes had no dentistry, no electrolysis, and little medical care of any kind.

Why did the filmmakers choose to portray the Heather Graham character in such a romanticized manner when they made the other details of the atmosphere as seedy or seedier than real life? Who knows? Ask yourself why they hired Heather Graham to play a 19th century English prostitute in the first place. I believe that when you can answer that question, you'll be on your way toward answering the other. The offbeat inspector needs to fall in love with Heather to advance the plot, and I suppose that pseudo-romance was easier to believe if the 'tute looked like Rollergirl rather than a real hooker of the times. You want realism? Picture what Rosie O'Donnell would look like if she had a severe allergic reaction to the pain medication given her after a Celebrity Boxing match against George Foreman. There's a 19th century London streetwalker. Would you have enjoyed watching a romance between her and Johnny Depp? Let's face it, sometimes a bit of compromise is necessary.

In addition to Graham, the BBC focused on the fact that there are no characters to identify with, and found the mystery devices hokey:

"the directors' attempts to disguise the identity of the killer are so inept they would make Brian De Palma blush. A whodunit where the who is bloody obvious and the characters disposable, "From Hell" has the odd chilling moment, but no amount of blood 'n' guts can compensate for a lack of heart."

I kind of agree with BBC on that last point. The film does seem cold and intellectualized. I thought that the film's atmosphere was crafted cleverly, but I never got involved in either the characters or the plot. I didn't think the mystery was as obvious as the BBC claimed above, but the story just seemed to drag on very slowly. I have to say that I admired many aspects for this movie, but never got dragged in emotionally.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Two disks

  • Commentary by directors Albert and Allen Hughes

  • HBO Special :"A View From Hell"

  • 23 deleted scenes with optional alternate ending

  • Interactive documentary "Jack The Ripper - Six Degrees of Separation"

  • Making of

  • Behind-the-scenes with the Hughes brothers

  • Image gallery

  • Storyboard comparisons

  • Mini-documentary "Tour of White Chapel"

  • Widescreen anamorphic format, 2.35


  • Graham shows cleavage in nearly every costume
  • Joanna Page is briefly topless
  • There is exposure from unknowns in both the film and deleted scenes, including full frontal.

Tuna's Thoughts

From Hell (2001) is a fascinating political/Freemasonry explanation of the Jack the Ripper story, starring the always great Johnny Depp as a police detective who solves crimes by visualizing the murders in drug induced dreams.

Heather Graham plays the part of Mary Kelly, the one prostitute who survived, and the one sour note in what was otherwise a pretty good yarn. She was entirely too polished, and too tidy, to be credible as a London streetwalker. Technically, the film is wonderful, with great cinematography, and tons of atmosphere. I don't want to spoil any of the story for those who haven't seen it because it is a good watch, even at 121 minutes.

I found it engrossing and visually stunning. I also enjoyed the way they revealed the mystery slowly as Depp uncovers clues.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3/4,

  • The movie was far less popular in England. General UK consensus: less than two stars. Daily Mail 4/10, Daily Telegraph 4/10, The Guardian 2/10, The Observer 8/10, The Times 7/10, Evening Standard 4/10, The Mirror 6/10, BBC 2/5

The People Vote ...

  • Box office: here once again there was a great disparity between the UK and the USA. It grossed about $32 million in the USA, only $4 million in the UK, a disproportion not solely attributable to the population difference.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, we both assess that this film is a C+. We both admired the film, but differed in our gut reactions. Tuna liked it, but Scoopy couldn't get into it.

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