In 1888, Jack the Ripper stalks the Whitechapel District of London.
We all have seen movies that for one reason or another really tickle our fancy, and even if we realize they aren’t the greatest movie in the world, we like them. This is one of those movies for me. I went through a period shortly after high school where I got really into Ripperology (yes, that’s a thing). The case fascinated me because of it’s brutality, but also because of the mystery; it’s been one-hundred and thirty years since Jack stalked Whitechapel, and we’ll never know the killers true identity. During that period of my life I picked up the absolutely wonderful graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore, and that book brought to life the world of Whitechapel, and let me walk about the streets that before I had only read about. Moore’s graphic novel masterpiece is a wondrously complicated work of fiction that weaves together a few different theories, as well as facts about the cases and the world of 1880’s London, into a tapestry of profound meaning and depth. It’s the only graphic novel I’ve ever read that caused me to cry. Now, while this film does not come close to the amazing source material, it does loosely adapt the story into something resembling the graphic novel. The Hughes brothers took a few liberties, most of which feel strange and unnecessary, but the skeleton of the story is still there. While I admit this movie doesn’t do a very good job of smoothing over the more messy bits of the story, it does provide some decent atmosphere and some interesting ideas. This isn’t a great movie, but it’s entertaining enough.
“One day men will look back and say that I gave birth to the twentieth century.”
The year is 1888, and a merciless killer is terrorizing the gutters and back alleys of London’s Whitechapel district. The district is known for its high crime rate and seedier populace; among the most common patrons are alcoholics, opium addicts, and prostitutes. One such prostitute is Mary Kelly (Heather Graham, “Boogie Nights”); she and her coterie of woman live in Whitechapel and do their best to get by. A gang whom they owe money constantly badgers Kelly and her friends, and the gang has been threatening grave violence. When one of Kelly’s friends is horribly slaughtered, she hopes that something can be done to stop it, and she begins to give information to a trouble inspector, Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”). Abberline occasionally has psychic visions that reveal to him clues about things that are to come. While his methods are questionable, his results seem to speak for themselves. As the Inspector navigates the bowels of London, he begins to suspect that the killings might not be the work of a raving madman, but perhaps something completely planned out and executed in a way that is far more sinister.
So first and foremost I want to address some of the choices that I feel like really take away from (or do nothing for) the film. Overall, I do think this story is pretty good, but I think the way that it was executed was just okay. One big thing is that I really see no reason that Johnny Depp’s character should be clairvoyant- it really does nothing but add a supernatural element to the story, one that really doesn’t further themes or characters at all. The addition to make Abberline psychic isn’t completely awful either, it just feels like its something weird the Hughes brothers wanted to throw into their movie so they could have a few trippy dream sequences. I wasn’t completely sold, but I also didn’t completely hate it, so as a result I was indifferent to that aspect. My biggest problem was that this film struggled to really find a tone as far as how it wanted to portray the Ripper. Much of the film is slow and methodical- it’s about learning about the characters and the world. For the most part, the film feels thoughtful and moody- even the violence is approached in a way that doesn’t feel gratuitous. It feels like a very grounded film (other than Abberline’s psychic abilities); we feel the emotional fallout from the people that know the victims, we see morgue proceedings and police questionings. I really liked the more grounded elements of this movie- they worked really well for the tone. Where the film deviated from a straightforward retelling and wandered into theatrical elements was where the film suffered. For example, having a character’s eyes literally turn pitch black during the middle of a conversation is pretty stupid. There’s a scene when a casket is being lowered into the ground and a board comes loose, revealing the mutilated corpse. A quote at the beginning of the film is attributed to Jack the Ripper, which, as we don’t know Jack’s identity, is clearly false. There are other nit-picky things I could bring up too, but for the most part it’s just little details here and there that stop this film from being good. I also think the relationship between Depp and Graham was a little clichéd and farfetched- my guess is that subplot was added by Hollywood executives. One other little qualm I had with the film was the color grading- normally this isn’t something that I really pay attention to, but in this film it bugged me enough to make note. The color tone and temperatures shift dramatically from scene to scene, sometimes it’s so drastic that it doesn’t even look like I’m watching the same movie. Most notable were the scenes with Heather Graham and Johnny Depp together- those scenes were bright and colorful, and looked more apropos of a scene from “Pride and Prejudice” than it did a Jack the Ripper movie.
While I do have plenty of little things that irk me about this film, I do think that overall it passes as an entertaining ride, and the biggest reason for that is the story itself. This film is very loosely adapted from Moore’s graphic novel- many details have been changed, characters have been removed or altered- but the story structure is similar. The story itself is masterfully written, and it interweaves a few different theories of Ripper lore that are among the more intriguing ideas. It’s a relatively complex storyline for the length of the film; there are lots of twists and turns, and the best part is that the twist is more disturbing than many of the other theories. This is a psychological look at why Jack might have murdered the people he did and the way he did it, and it’s extremely compelling and entertaining. I can see how this film did receive criticism though, as the film itself is rather slowly paced, and this was advertised as, essentially, a slasher film. This film aspires to be more than a slasher film, however, and in some instances it works, in others it doesn’t work as well.
As far as acting goes, I thought everyone was fine, though not incredibly remarkable. Heather Graham was her normal self; I’ve seen her in five or six films now and I feel like she always gives the same performance. It’s never bad, but she never blows me out of the water either. Johnny Depp was a little more withdrawn in this movie. Honestly, the way he played Abberline felt like he was just a warm body to fill the hole in the screen, but I also wondered if that was intentional to hype up Abberline’s opium addiction.
This is a film where my own personal preferences on story come into play and affect my judgment on the movie overall. I will stand by my stance that this is an okay film. For the right audience, it will certainly entertain. It’s not an Oscar winner, it won’t be remembered in 30 years (I’m surprised I remembered it fifteen years after it came out), but I’m sure that some people will find plenty to like. This movie is a passable adaptation of a wonderful graphic novel, and if this is the best version I’ll ever see of Moore’s masterpiece onscreen, well, then, I guess I’m okay with that.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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