JURGEN VOLLMERJohnny Depp as Inspector Aberline and Heather Graham as Mary Kelly in 'From Hell'
"From Hell," retells the story of Jack the Ripper by recontextualizing it into the social and political milieu of its time. Queen Victoria, the Freemasons, the Elephant Man and the beginnings of media hysteria get swirled into the atmospheric mists of Whitechapel, London. The comic version may well turn out to be the writer Alan Moore's magnum opus. Meticulously researched, it took five years to complete and totals over 500 pages, including copious footnotes. Moore first gained mainstream media exposure when his "Watchmen" series, about the killings of retired superheroes, established him as a master at orchestrating long-term themes and motifs in the uniquely visual literature of comix. His "From Hell," goes further by turning non-fiction into a singular artistic vision tying together art, history and the supernatural.
The Hughes brothers' adaptation has smaller ambitions. Moore's Jack believes he can see the grand design of time and space as created by the Great Architect of Masonic belief. The better to explore this great plan, Moore reveals the identity of the killer in the first chapter and makes him the central character. The movie version puts the focus on Inspector Aberline (Depp) and keeps the mystery of Jack's identity going until the final reel. This changes the whole purpose of the work from an examination of "a kind of lace tyin' things together. A kind of lace over everything," as one prophetic character says, into a dull murder mystery with conspiratorial overtones.
Inspector Aberline at the scene
Gone too, naturally, is the remarkable artwork of Eddie Campbell. Campbell shares authorship with Moore for good reason. His scribbley, impressionist black and white pen work picks out just the details important to a scene. The rest seems shrouded in mist. After several hundred pages you feel closed in yourself. You can't read the book without at least one walk in the sunshine. The Hughes brothers have their own misty style, but have chosen to shoot in color. The look of the movie becomes its best asset, exploring the medium's unique possibilities of luminosity, movement and composition. The mint-green of Aberline's absinthe shows up in the color of the lanterns on the Ripper's carriage, among other touches.
Ultimately "From Hell" the movie amounts to little more than a costume slasher picture, complete with punched-up "boo" effects. For those who have read the book the driving narrative of solving the mystery is moot, leaving little else to do except look at how pretty Depp and Graham are. The clear sense of artistic vision has been clouded by the commercial vision of making a blockbuster. In comparison, "Ghost World," with it's integral participation of the original artist, remains the truer, and far more meaningful adaptation.
"From Hell," the book, can be found at regular bookstores and their online counterparts, or from the publisher's website. The movie will be playing at a mall near you for at least a little while.