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From Hell lacks substance, character development

Jack the Ripper has held the imagination of historical scholars and conspiracy theorists alike for the last hundred years. When the anonymous murderer coined the quote that people will say he gave birth to the twentieth century, he may have been on to something.

As far as movies go, he has been the subject of more than 20 feature films. And while From Hell begs to be compared with them, it simply serves as just another send-up of a good murder mystery gone silly.

From Hell follows the investigation of Ripper through the deductions of an opium-smoking detective named Abberline (Johnny Depp), who hallucinates and sees Jack’s murders in his mind before they even occur. However, five prostitutes are killed in the process before our supposed protagonist can put his magical powers to work, so apparently they could have assigned Mr. Magoo to the case and the outcome would have remained the same.

The sad part of From Hell is not its poor choice to follow a rather unlikable character and his failed attempts to stop the insanity, but rather the fact that no character in the film is given enough time to establish his or her motive for doing anything.

First we have Abberline, a guy who “chases the dragon” and seemingly cares about the crime solely because he is attracted to one of the potential victims. Then there is Abberline’s perpetually Shakespeare-quoting assistant who basically follows him around and tells grunt policemen to be quiet when his boss is talking. And to top it off, we have to listen to the bickering of five “unfortunates” who apparently are the targets of one deranged individual.

The fascination for Jack the Ripper grew out of the manner in which these murders took place. They all happened at night, in public, and the killer ripped out the uterus of his victims, which apparently could only have been the handiwork of someone mastered in the art of cutlery.

Theories of Ripper’s identity range from a surgeon to a police officer to a member of the royal family itself. Here, all possibilities are explored, but under-handed direction and poor scripting continue to get in the way of every chance to throw the audience for a loop.

Instead of leaving you guessing, From Hell comes up with its own conclusion of what exactly happened and takes the easy way out by combining all the theories into one “Oh, I should have known it from the start” bad guy.

Heather Graham co-stars as one of the prostitutes and basically serves as a waste of every minute of screen time she is given. It’s not entirely her fault (but after Austin Powers 2, it might actually be); she is plagued just as every other actor in this film is because she isn’t given a character to work with. At first she despises and insults Abberline at the funeral of one of her fallen sisters, then two scenes later she trusts him completely. By the end of the film, they are madly in love with each other with no reason other than his kindness presented to establish the relationship. But maybe that’s how things worked in 1888 London.

According to directors Albert and Allen Hughes (Menace to Society), the now-gray and gloomy evening sky that shines over the Thames was apparently once soaked with a blood red tone only accentuated by hellish black clouds. But you’ve got to hand it to the Hughes brothers – along with style, they really know how to set up a scene.

We are introduced to Depp’s surprisingly less-than-stellar Abberline as doors open to a seedy, yet seemingly upscale opium den. He lies in the background of a room filled with passed-out gentlemen and nude women strewn out across the floor. He is in almost a fetal position on a backless couch hunched over sucking smoke from a tube administered to him by a young Chinese pusher. All the while, images of his hallucinations are inter-spliced within to give the idea of what is being conjured up in his head.

However, style doesn’t always forgive for lack of substance. In the case of From Hell, lack of substance is the least of its problems.

The film theorizes that murdering the precise number of five girls was the original intent of the mythical antagonist. Of course, some sort of conclusion must be made about who he was, but the truth remains that we don’t know. This leaves the audience wondering if there are supposed to be more victims. The story here takes all the facts for granted and doesn’t explore anything new.

While this is simply a movie and everything in it should be taken with a grain of salt, it should also maintain interest and some sort of believability. Instead, the filmmakers expect you to know everything about the famed tale even though it is being fictionalized here. Plus, everything comes together so easily for Abberline, it’s a wonder why he couldn’t have done a better job of protecting the women he knew were going to be murdered.All in all, the material here promises an in-depth look at one of the greatest murder mysteries of all time but rather ends up sucking all the life out of the unsolved case and in the process fails to make even a novice care to learn what really happened.


  • William Albritton is a senior majoring in mass communications. Contact him at