“Torture the women,” prescribed playwright Victorine Sardou. It can’t hurt a film to have tits and a scream. So hire an actress and make her pay.
Hitchcock did. De Palma did. And now the Hughes Brothers (“Menace II Society”) do in “From Hell,” a half-historical gore-fest about Jack the Ripper.
Set in 1888 London , “From Hell” follows Inspector Frederick George Abberline (the beautiful and always tortured-looking Johnny Depp), the whore of his affections, Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), and the raunchy Ripper himself.
Rounding out the cast is the assortment of Whitechapel prostitutes who have their throats cut and bowels removed through the course of the film and Jack’s reign of terror. Their deaths are all aestheticized and their characters largely irrelevant. Heaving breasts and slashed bodices ensure that sexual thrills tide over any in the audience too squeamish for intestines.
Violence is uniquely played out on the body of the women. In one particularly revealing moment, a woman’s corpse is brought to the coroner. He lifts her skirts and barely turns away before vomiting. The woman’s legs are open, blood oozing between them. All that between-her-legs horror — the smell, the menstrual blood, the birthing — is here rendered generally nauseating and disgusting to men.
Popular fascination with the brutal murderer and mutilator of women has yet to produce a definitive suspect, but fetishists and historians agree that he was white, male, middle-aged and almost certainly well-educated. Nevertheless, the Hughes Brothers back one definitive theory that others have merely toyed with: that famous Jack was someone associated with the royal family.
Rich white men have often thought they could get away with murder; Jack the Ripper’s mystique offers the promise of success. At the end, Jack is narratively and visually aligned with Masons, monarchs, anti-Semites and an assortment of male doctors, suggesting a universality to his perversions.
“From Hell” really wants to be “Quills.” Both use graphic violence and sexual titillation to explore a historical epoch and famous figure. But where the Marquis de Sade from “Quills” was a veritable novel of perversions, our Ripper is little more than insane. Where “Quills” used a Sadistic strategy in its own narrative and cinematography, “From Hell” is little more than a testament to the visual acuity of the set designers. Where “Quills” was profound, “From Hell” is little more than amusing.
Though it makes nods towards a cultural critique of Victorian England, the movie’s tawdry techniques make it little more than a stag film masquerading as elegant art.
The epigraph to the film is the Ripper’s famous quote that “One day, men will look back and say I gave birth to the 20th century.” Of course, the 20th century’s real evil turned out to be the banal bureaucrat and faceless informant; the serial killer was never the figure of modernism that Ripper hoped to be. How fitting that “From Hell” isn’t quite the sensational epic that it wanted to be.