We are in the most extreme and utter region of the human mind. A radiant abyss where men meet themselves.
Whatever we may believe of life and its aftermath, we all have some concept of damnation. The nightmare may be as simple as a lonely, almost impeccably dark jail cell, or as complicated as a repetition of our mistakes over the course of thousands of years until a horrific realization comes upon us; it may even be the bottomless fire-and-brimstone mortar pit evoked by the soapbox preacher. When someone claims to have no conception of hell or heaven, we should wonder whether he has ever really felt anything more than blood coursing through his veins. I for one can picture hell in a variety of ways, because although the devil is supposed to be in the details, there are also varieties of inhuman experiences that attend our deepest fears. We fear death, surely, but we fear repeated, agonizing, inextricable death even more. Which is why you might never quite forget the images of this film.
While its title was famously used in a letter from this killer, a star in the pantheon of that nebulous arena known as "true crime," our film, despite its drawings from standard Ripperology, has little in the way of documentary. We begin with an opium pipe, decadence, and the notion that everything we are about to witness could be nothing more than a mad dream. It is but moments later that we descend into the filth that comprises certain parts of late nineteenth-century London, the lack of hygiene, morals, or hope. In this case we speak of Whitechapel. On every corner stands a pinch-prick or bang-tail (or in a perfect Victorian euphemism, an "unfortunate"); on every corner opposite looms a trick or handler. Between them totter drunks and beggars, pickpockets and slowly dying workers that, were it not for the restraint of the directors, could have made for a scathing exposé on industrial poverty. Our killer fits right in with all this, of course, "as quiet as the devil's laugh." Hell could be Whitechapel; or it could be the opium den where we keep returning to that handsome fellow who probably thinks he's in heaven. What is worse, knowing you are in hell, or being in hell and all the while thinking you are saved? Both are suggested; and both, perhaps, are parts of the same nefarious realm.
The plot, as an interpretation of the events, is frighteningly simple. An erstwhile unfortunate, Ann Crook (Joanna Page) has married and had a baby with someone of the upper class by the name of Albert. A violent gang of operatives linked to his family gets wind of it, destroys their apartment, carries Albert off and makes Ann confess all names of those with knowledge of the baby. Since these operatives are of a very persuasive brand, we are not surprised to learn that within a few short days of Ann's abduction one of her former colleagues is murdered in broadest darkness. But she is not just murdered, she is butchered, and in spectacular fashion, the gruesome result suggesting a suspect well-versed in anatomy. The flashes of steel on an otherwise black screen when the first victim is corralled will remain one of the great vignettes in the history of thrillers. We then are provided with another view of what took place in a rapid reel so commonly incident to hallucinations and the wild daydreams of the addict, taking us back to that handsome man lying in the shape of a question mark on an opium den futon. That man is Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp), and he possesses what is known as second sight, if blurred by a rather virulent craving for laudanum and absinthe. He is revived by his sidekick Godley (Robbie Coltrane), an immense bag of Shakespearean quotes and embarrassed gestures, and informed of the task at hand – which, as it were, has just begun to assume its diabolical contours.
The complications of tracking the serial killer at large need not be spoiled on these pages, even if the story is familiar from urban legend. Abberline and Godley poke around the crime scenes in the dawning hours of forensic science and suspect that a surgeon might be behind it all, even if some of their superiors recommend they question veterinarians, tailors, and, most of all, butchers. At the same time, as yet undiscovered by our ersatz Holmes-and-Watson, the friends of Ann Crook and the first victim, Martha Tabram, wander about without fixed domicile or meals. These include Katherine Eddowes, the mother-hen of the pullets, Liz Stride, the resident Sapphist, Annie Chapman, a particularly unhandsome addition, Polly Nichols, a gullible sort, and the lone Irishwoman in the group, Mary Kelly (Heather Graham). A brief aside: even if we forget the sequence of crimes, does Mary Kelly really need to be the only one among the group of any attractiveness (highlighted, as it were, by a shock of red hair)? Does the term "last girl" mean anything to the viewer? In the horror film code, the last girl is invariably the only one who does not wander off into the darkness by herself looking for some frivolous object, as well as the only one who refuses to mock the imminent danger. Such is the fate of Mary Kelly, who so outshines her companions – and, indeed, all of Whitechapel – that one would scarcely believe her line of work. Once Tabram is killed, rumors begin about the foreignness of the matter (even the name "Tabram" is deemed foreign-sounding); Abberline's superior alternatively blames and exculpates the Jews, then makes a joke about "Red Indians indulging their natural inclinations." A superior, by the way, who just so happens to be a high-ranking member, probably well towards the thirty-third degree, of a Masonic lodge where a great number of surgeons and men of power congregate far too often to be insignificant for our film.
From Hell has suffered critically from what can be loosely termed great expectations. That is to say, it is such a visual marvel that the impressed viewer could only be disappointed with a plain plot not unlike any straightforward slasher mayhem flick. Since the film tries its damnedest to adhere to the historical detail extant – the order and method of the killings, as well as the real persons heading the investigation – there obtains the added unpleasantry of foreknowledge that dampens any real suspense. I may sit gloriously in the minority, but these are petty obstacles. Our killer is not so much revealed as summoned from the darkest annals of our nightmares, and given the striving towards known events, we know that our crime will remain to some degree unsolved. Yet I think what has gained its greatest legion of detractors is an unadorned truth: evil may claim to be ingenious, multifaceted and abstruse, but at its core it wallows in the blandest mud. How then to interpret the first written line of the film, ultimately its epigraph, as uttered by Jack himself: "One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the twentieth century"? Perhaps by comparing that assertion with the one that began this essay from the on-screen Ripper's unshown mouth. As Godley might then have whispered, some rise by sin and some by virtue fall.