Beyond the Slimy Wall: From Hell
By Stephanie Star Smith
May 5, 2004
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture beyond the slimy wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
When you’re a horror film fan, you soon learn that you have to sift through one helluva lot of dross in order to find the gold. For every good movie you find, you’ve likely sat through at least two others that were mediocre at best. One of my goals in starting this column was to help fellow fans cleave the wheat from the chaff.
Which brings us to this train wreck of a looked-so-good-on-paper film. For those who have so far fortunately avoided giving up two hours of their lives at this Temple of Banality, I’m going to do you all a favor by revealing every single plot point there is to this dreck, thus saving you the trouble of having to seek it out yourselves and suffer the consequences. So if, after this decidedly less-than-glowing intro, you’d still like to torture yourself by slogging through the flick, be forewarned of spoilers ahead.
From Hell takes its title not only from a series of graphic novels, but from a famously-headlined letter sent to Scotland Yard by one of the most famous serial killers of all time, Jack the Ripper. Red Jack liked to taunt the Yard inspectors, offering up cheeky commentary on his crimes and the law’s efforts to catch him. But given the minimal entertainment the film offers, From Hell might just as well be describing the torment from which a viewer will feel he has escaped after sitting through the blasted thing. It is that bad.
First and foremost amongst the film’s many sins is the protagonist with which we are presented. Victorian England was just about as rigidly class-conscious as it is possible to imagine; if you were born poor, you had little chance of escaping your beginnings, and your accent, clothing and name were the manner in which your proper place in society was identified. But since From Hell is little interested in keeping to historical fact, it violates this strict code by having one of the senior detectives at Scotland Yard be Cockney. Of course, given the perspective of time, one might almost overlook such an obvious misstep, especially given the Cockney inspector is portrayed by none other than the near-always entertaining Johnny Depp. Unfortunately for the film, however, Depp is portraying an actual historical figure, Inspector Frederick George Abberline. Abberline was indeed part of the team of detectives that Scotland Yard assigned to the Ripper case, and he had previously been assigned as a local inspector in the Whitechapel district. But he was not Cockney; he was, in fact, born in Blandford, Dorset, a coastal area which most certainly was not within the sound of the bells of St. Mary Le Bow. Strike One for From Hell.
Of course, this admittedly minor departure from history would not necessarily, in and of itself, be a problem. After all, actors make character choices, and sometimes directors have to, or choose to, accept those choices, even if the choice diverges wildly from the facts of the life of the real person being portrayed. But in the first of the outrageous curve balls the creative team behind this film throws, Depp’s Abberline is also an opium addict, and not a closet one, either. In the opening moments of the film, it is made clear to us that his superiors know about his habit, that his colleagues are aware of it, and that he is often found at an opium den if he’s not at work. Even if Abberline was Cockney, and even if, as is alluded to in the film, he had a brilliant deductive mind that often solved cases where others could not, there’s no way the Yard would allow an opium addict of the wrong class to rise to the level of an inspector at the famous Scotland Yard. Not in 19th century England. From Hell takes Strike Two.
Strike Three comes in the form of its identification of the killer. The Ripper murders are one of the most famous unsolved serial killings of all time; Scotland Yard had a handful of prime suspects, and over the ensuing centuries, some other likely candidates have been put forth as possible culprits, but no one has ever definitively proven - or disproven - that any of the proposed perpetrators, or anyone else, for that matter, committed the crimes. This being the case, the Ripper murders offer the perfect opportunity for writers to fashion their own version of events, using one of the existing prime suspects or someone of their own devising. But as in any mystery, whether on screen, stage or page, the creators must play fair with the audience. You can’t show a five-foot-tall blonde pulling the trigger, then later have the detective pull a deus ex machina and prove the killer is actually a six-foot-four man. And yet the makers of From Hell do exactly that; they show a Ripper committing the murders who is clearly well over six foot, fairly strong and obviously with complete use of all his limbs. Then, in the final reel, this Ripper is unmasked to reveal a well-under-six-foot old man who up until this point was paralyzed on one side. Oh, sure; the old codger is suddenly able to use an arm that was previously completely non-functional, but that’s not the problem. Giving the audience clues that point one direction only to resolve the mystery in a completely different direction for which no clues were provided isn’t cricket. And it destroys enjoyment of the mystery.
And I have a bit of a Strike Three-A here that probably would bother few, but bugged the bejesus out of me. One of the things I found intriguing in researching the film before it opened was an apparently correct report of an ending where Mary Kelly somehow escapes Red Jack’s wrath. Now while Ripperologists argue over when the murders actually started and stopped, there is virtually no disagreement that the five women killed between August 31st and November 9th, 1888, were victims of the killer dubbed Jack the Ripper. These are the five murders that Scotland Yard investigated as the Ripper murders, and those five have never been in dispute. So I was interested in finding out how the filmmakers were going to have Mary Kelly, the Ripper’s last canonical victim, escape her fate. Well, the answer turned out to be very simple; they cheated. Given the rest of the film’s buggering of the audience, this shouldn’t be surprising, but surprised I was nonetheless. Because although Mary Kelly was the most horrifically mutilated of the canonical five, she was still recognizable enough to be identified by the police. Scotland Yard didn’t have the luxury of using dental records, as forensic odontology wouldn’t come into being for another century. Nor could the detectives check her fingerprints, for although this branch of forensics did exist, it was in its infancy; fingerprints wouldn’t even be admitted as evidence in a criminal case in England for another couple of decades, and there was no such thing as fingerprint records. So the police relied on IDing the corpse by the most common and obvious method: Recognizing her face. Mutilated though it was, it was still sufficiently recognizable to be deemed that of Mary Elizabeth Kelly. Not a friend or neighbor or some poor girl who happened to be staying in the same room, but Kelly. Not that the filmmakers had shown any concern about accuracy of any type, historical or otherwise, but it added yet another sore point to my lack of enjoyment of this atrocious flick.
But Strike Four - and I know I’m pushing the baseball analogy here, but at least I’m admitting to fudging the facts - and the film’s worst crime of all, is that is it bor-ring. Dull, dull, deadly dull, tediously dull and boring and unrelentingly drab and awful. The filmmakers might as well have presented a documentary on the British profession of chartered accountancy for all the excitement and dramatic tension they managed to inject into one of the most famous unsolved serial murder cases in history. The sin of being boring, whilst a mortal one in any genre, is thrice that in horror and science fiction, because if you can’t create an atmosphere, characters and a monster that are riveting, what’s the point of going to all the trouble? Go make a nature documentary; less trouble for you, and less taxing for your viewers, who will know what they’re getting going in.
So I end my diatribe, gentle readers, with the fervent wish that I have not only communicated my distaste for this film, but that I have saved some of you from making the same mistake I did in believing a film about a fascinating, unsolved murder case would, by extension, be fascinating itself.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.