The Movie From Hell

MoviesI finally got around to seeing the Hughes Brothers (twins Albert and Allen) film From Hell this past weekend (courtesy of HBO). Alas, it was a bit of a disappointment. The movie, in and of itself, was all right (well, there’s no way on Earth Heather Graham could be mistaken for a Whitechapel prostitute, but other than that...); it’s just that there’s too much to compare it to. I’ve always been fascinated by “conspiracy” literature (one need only observe my near-obsession with the Illuminatus! trilogy to see that), and I was truly looking forward to this interpretation. Unfortunately, the movie is just a shadow of the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Some of that you expect from a screenplay adaptation — the dropping of certain characters, the condensation of plot elements — but the changes made in this case went too far, particularly for a story that’s (at least ostensibly) based in fact. Most glaring is the complete alteration off the lead character, inspector Abberline, from a dedicated (if disillusioned) family man to a self-destructive yet “visionary” opium addict, a characterization completely inconsistent with the source material (not to mention that this is a real-life, historical figure we’re talking about). Then there are the teasing inclusion of certain elements — the Masonic rituals, the killer’s supernatural visions, the “Elephant Man” connection — but none are pursued to any satisfying degree. The visuals are nice, but the overtly symbolic crimson skies get a little tired. On the whole, there just wasn’t any tension to the piece, a particularly damning criticism for a thriller.

The wholesale revision of history is nothing new, and it’s certainly not enough to discount a picture out of hand (one of my favorite “historical” films, The Untouchables, is pretty much a complete fabrication). But I think this picture was also the victim of poor timing, what with the recent release of Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper — Case Closed, by Patricia Cornwell. A fascinating read, and one which, through extensive forensic investigation, convincingly (though perhaps not absolutely) identifies the Ripper as the artist Walter Sickert. Sickert featured prominently in the From Hell graphic novel, but isn’t even mentioned in the film (instead, Prince Edward Albert Victor is portrayed as a “painter”). Knowing the truth (or as much of it as we’re likely to discover more than a century after the fact) makes the whole picture that much harder to swallow.

I still recommend the Moore/Campbell work, but I know I won’t be watching the movie again. I don’t know how the next motion picture adaptation of Moore’s work, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, will turn out (early buzz is warning of radical rewriting), but I hope it’s at least more compelling.


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