Halfway through the stunning 1999 graphic novel From Hell, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Eddie Campbell, Jack the Ripper is busily dissecting his latest victim when he suddenly finds himself in a late-20th-century office building. Either hallucinating or receiving a vision of things to come, he looks around and despairs: “With all your shimmering numbers and your lights, think not to be inured to history. Its black root succours you. It is inside you. Are you asleep to it, that you cannot feel its breath upon your neck, nor see what soaks its cuffs? See me! Wake up and look upon me! I am come amongst you. I am with you always!” Wonder is gone; chaos has been tamed into plastic; the very gods appear to be dead. What doesn’t occur to him is that this is his true legacy — not murder, which existed long before Jack, but soullessness, apathy, insensitivity to suffering.
I wish the movie From Hell had found a way to include that passage — for me the finest in a book teeming with dark magic — but what it does include is more than good enough. Directors Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society) and screenwriters Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias can’t possibly pack in all the density of narrative and background that sprawls across Moore and Campbell’s phone-book-thick volume. This From Hell paints in short, sure strokes, tossing in a few of Moore’s details about events/people co-existing with the Ripper murders of 1888 (the Elephant Man, the Freemasons, Queen Victoria) while omitting others (Oscar Wilde, the conception of Adolf Hitler).
The movie also gives us a hero — Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp), an opium-addled and rather depressive detective who, like the book’s Jack, receives visions. Whores are being butchered, ritually and methodically, and left on the freezing cobblestones of Whitechapel. In a plot worthy of Oliver Stone (and backed up by certain Ripperologists, as obsessive about Jack as others are about the JFK assassination), Abberline begins to suspect that the murders, rather than being random acts of savagery, may lead all the way up to the throne.
The Hughes brothers give us impressionistic bursts of violence — we don’t see the brutality so much as feel it. They also draw out the misogynistic dread of the Victorian era, the disgust toward female sexuality (another legacy of Jack that lives on — the female body can be understood only by tearing it asunder). From what I can gather, the movie is saying that what we know of violence today has its roots in politics, mysticism, and surgery — all attempts to dissect the human experience, of course. At the center of all this is Abberline and fresh-faced prostitute Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), who dreams of getting away, moving to a home in the country, and having lots of kids to love. It’s looking as if she’s next on Jack’s to-do list.
Depp and Graham, both sporting serviceable accents, add warmth and urgency to what might have been a cold movie. It’s chilly nevertheless; while discarding a lot out of necessity, the filmmakers have retained Moore’s basic outline, culminating in the Ripper’s most horrific mutilation yet, a thorough dismantling of physicality in which Jack fancies himself giving a lecture on anatomy to an appreciative surgical-theater class. Somehow, the movie taps into the book’s uncanny implication that the very air is charged with malevolent ancient spirits, that our houses and bodies are just thin shells warding them off, ineffectually.
From Hell leaves you metaphysically disquieted rather than pleasurably spooked. Those in the mood for a crackling gothic-horror murder mystery may want to rent Sleepy Hollow, also with Depp; this one’s a bit tougher to shake off. The movie is beautifully squalid and dank — cinematographer Peter Deming, who also shot David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, should take a step up in his profession for this double whammy — and the script, taking as much as possible from Moore, is satisfyingly literate. The Hughes brothers, too, have proven themselves masters of violence among the urban class — this one just happens to unfold in 1888 London. I regret a bit of copping out at the end, but even this is balanced with rhyming portraits of desolation and loss: Jack and Abberline, alone and oblivious, communing with the spirits in their heads — the connective tissue between good and evil has become delirium, and the Ripper is with us always.