Mixing fact, fiction, Holmesian mystery and moody bits of stylish horror, the Hughes Brothers delivered their best film in 2001 with From Hell. Adapted from Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name and revolving around the now-legendary Jack the Ripper murders, the film—while changing bits here and there—nonetheless keeps its identity as a Moore work, with its dabbling in the occult and shades of the supernatural, not to mention the film’s penchant for delving into conspiracies and secret societies. But at the same time, the Hughes Brothers have made a movie that is very much their own, taking the crime and poverty of inner-city life in previous films like Menace II Society (1993) and Dead Presidents (1995), and transferring it to the crime and poverty of the slums of Victorian England. So you get a very grimy, dirty, sometimes grotesque view of an often-romanticized era, but wrapped up inside a film that never loses its humanity, and which is never for want of style.
The slickness found in the Hughes’ direction, however, is totally at the will of the film’s mood, mixing filth and subdued color. Their view of London is a bleak, ugly one that’s reflected in its hero, Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp), a sort of Sherlock Holmes-like character, but wholly afflicted by the world he lives in. What the film does is take the facts about the Ripper cases and inserts this weary, drug-addicted—yet personable, in that Depp kind of way—detective into the middle of it. Along the way, we meet the Ripper’s prey, his victims and his would-be victims (namely prostitutes), including lady of the night Mary Kelly (Heather Graham in the best role of her career). All this humanizes—even in the face of all the speculation and liberties the film takes—the Ripper murders.
It’s a refreshing take on the story, though one that shouldn’t be taken literally. When I first saw this film a decade ago, myself much younger and with a worldview that put more importance on the literal, I had issues with the conspiratorial bent the film takes on. That was in a time before I realized movies are, well, movies, and that this aspect suits the film perfectly, since—first and foremost—From Hell is a horror film, not a historic, stodgy period piece. This is a London where around every corner death might wait. The murders themselves are flashy and stylish—but never sadistic, despite their inherently brutal nature. It’s a great horror movie made by a couple of guys you’d probably never expect such a thing from, and—over the past decade—a movie that’s one of the best of its genre.