Sometimes you remember a movie one way, watch it again, and find that it does not quite fit the image in your brain. I have probably said this in other reviews, but it bears repeating for a movie such as From Hell (2001). Given my current devotion, something I did not have back then, it might come as a shock to have an avowed Catholic reviewing a film with such a title. If you are familiar with its content, you will also know that there is a lot in it that will ultimately lead to me not recommending it to any audience. You would not know it from the name, but it is about the Jack the Ripper murders. That is bad enough, but it takes quite a bit of historical license as well. That is the stuff of horror for a historian like me, and my Catholic sensibilities do not care for the bloodiness, nudity, drug use, or the freemasons using God in their ceremonies. I could stop the review here, but there is more to it than these aspects, which will hopefully emerge from this treatment.
We do not begin with the killings of history’s first credited serial killer, Jack the Ripper, in From Hell. Instead, it is Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp) who kicks off our proceedings, and his opium induced visions of the poor section of London known as Whitechapel. We then move to those mean streets where all manner of vice can be found among its desperate denizens. We focus on a prostitute named Mary Kelly (Heather Graham). She is accosted by a local crime boss named McQueen (David Schofield), who demands that she and her fellow ladies of the night pay him for the right to ply their trade in the neighborhood. She delivers this news to her friends, who wonder where they are going to get the money. They believe they might have a lead when a former prostitute turned successful lady Ann Crook (Joanna Page) visits them with her new baby, Alice. The child is the offspring of her union with Albert (Mark Dexter), and she asks them to look after Alice while she visits with her husband in exchange for her asking for financial assistance. Their relations are interrupted by Benjamin Kidney (Terence Harvey) of the Special Branch, who kidnaps Ann. He then questions her because it would seem that Albert is actually Prince Albert Victor, the second son of Queen Victoria (Liz Moscrop). Under intense interrogation, Ann gives up the names of the other prostitutes who may know the identity of Prince Albert. It is not long thereafter that the killings begin. The first is brought to the attention of Inspector Abberline by Sergeant George Godley (Robbie Coltrane), who finds his superior in an opium den. They find the first victim in the morgue, and see the way in which the victim had many of her reproductive organs removed. The grizzly display puts off most, but what stands out to Inspector Abberline is the skill with which the eviscerations are done, suggesting somebody with a medical background. This theory is given a boost when he looks over a second victim with a similar set of wounds, this time finding the body in situ. Around the cadaver are found a sprig of eaten grapes, a luxury for the people of the Whitechapel district, and a curious arrangement of coins. Inspector Abberline takes his theories to his superior, Sir Charles Warren (Ian Richardson), who is dismissive of the notion of a learned man carrying out these crimes. Inspector Abberline wants to consult a surgeon, but Sir Charles forbids it. Heedless of this warning, Inspector Abberline goes to a society function where many well-off medical men congregate, though also finds a chilly reception. The one that does talk to him is Sir William Gull (Ian Holm), who is a retired surgeon and personal doctor to the royal family. He confirms many of Inspector Abberline’s initial theories. From there, he begins to work more closely with the women known to congregate with the victims, which brings him into contact with Mary. This is how he comes to learn of Ann’s disappearance, and with Mary’s help confirms that Ann’s Albert is the Prince Albert. The member of the royal family becomes his first suspect, though this is shot down by Sir William, who reveals that Prince Albert has syphilis, causing tremors, and does not possess the knowledge to carry out the ghastly dissections. Regardless, the murders point to someone highly placed with connections to freemasonry. When another death occurs, this time with an overt freemason message, Inspector Abberline is taken off the case when Sir Charles orders the evidence of freemasonry involvement destroyed. In response, Inspector Abberline asks that Mary and her friends stay off the streets while he completes his investigation on his own, which is asked also because of feelings developing between them. She listens, for the most part, and he finally lands on Sir William as the culprit. Unfortunately, before Inspector Abberline can end the killings by shooting Sir William, he is knocked out. Sir William then heads to what he believes to be the last victim, and performs an outrageous act of mutilation. When Inspector Abberline rushes to the scene, initially he believes it to be Mary, but there are clues that it is somebody else. Later, he finds a letter waiting for him at a local pub informing him that Mary has taken Alice to her hometown in Ireland, and that they will wait for him. In spite of this, and a promised promotion by Sir Charles, Inspector Abberline feels he cannot go to her less he rouse the suspicion of those watching him. Instead, he decides to smoke enough opium to kill himself, and he dies with a vision of Mary and Alice in Ireland. The end.
There are many historical problems with From Hell, but we will not get into them. I will say that they got a lot of the names right, as well as the desperate surroundings of late nineteenth century Whitechapel, London. Seeing people in these conditions is almost as awful as seeing the crimes of Jack the Ripper. Another tragic figure is Inspector Abberline. It is suggested that the reason he turned to opium, or “chasing the dragon” as it is also referred to as, is because of his wife dying while giving birth to his son. When these kinds of things happen, we naturally seek answers. Religion is far from this movie, except in the aggravating scenes when you have a new member of the freemasons being admitted into their dumb club. If it means anything to anyone, the Catholic Church is against freemasonry, but I digress. Especially at this point in history, people would have turned to faith in order to find comfort they sought. Failing that, it would have usually been alcohol. Opium dens did exist, though I think they were less ubiquitous than Hollywood would lead you to believe. Then again, this film, which is based on a graphic novel of the same title, takes a great deal of creative license to tell the story. Hence, of course Inspector Abberline is an opium addict. That was a thing then, right? One place where creative license and faith intersect is in the marriage between Ann and Prince Albert. It never happened, but the reaction is in keeping with the ideals of the day. To an even greater degree than this country, Catholicism was frowned upon in England. The wedding between the two is a Catholic one, making their Alice a legitimate member of the royal family, regardless of religious profession. That was virtually illegal, and with the kind of power that Queen Victoria and her minions wielded, you could easily see this kind of story as being possible, no matter how false it is.
The anti-Catholic angle of From Hell is but a small part of the proceedings. There is little else to recommend it, and thus I say avoid it. The historic value is minimal as well. What makes the story tantalizing is that they never did figure out who was Jack the Ripper. It is fun to speculate on the matter, but I could do without the packaging.