Jack the Ripper never dies. He just keeps coming back, like a recurring nightmare-immortalized in books, movies, television shows and even Alban Berg’s 12-tone German opera, Lulu-to quicken our pulses, make us watch our backs and keep us guessing. As a devoted Ripperphile who has read all the books, examined all the theories about his identity and remained riveted to the bloody deeds of the most famous serial killer of all time, I couldn’t wait for From Hell, the most lavishly produced film ever made about the black-cloaked killer who terrorized London in 1888. The result is both thrilling and disappointing-sumptuously mounted, brilliantly photographed, relentlessly exciting and seriously flawed.
The single most important reason generations remain fascinated by the monster of Whitechapel who massacred five prostitutes in the darkness of the London slums during the reign of Queen Victoria is the fact that the case has never been solved. Allen and Albert Hughes, the twin brothers from Detroit who went from music videos to such forgettable junk films as Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, have, in their most ambitious undertaking to date, done what scholars, researchers and professional criminologists have failed to do for a century. They not only solve the case, identify the Ripper, reveal his motives and show him in action (depriving the audience of most of the fun and suspense), but they test poetic license to new heights of impudence as well, dragging the Elephant Man and Queen Victoria herself into the maelstrom of characters, tacking on a preposterous Hollywood ending. Worst of all, they soup up the soundtrack with nauseating music by freaked-out rock singer Marilyn Manson that wrecks the Victorian-period atmosphere they’ve just spent two hours building for the sake of another godawful soundtrack CD. This is lamentable, because much of what you’ll see in the course of this sinister, chilling and meticulously detailed revisionist study of a great murder case is genuinely spine-tingling.
They certainly got the scenic design right. Wasting no time, the film plunges you into the lurid sewers of Sweeney Todd’s Industrial Revolution: the opium dens, charnel houses, garish pubs, insane asylums and brothels of an impoverished underworld populated by “unfortunates”-the label assigned to the starving and homeless women of the streets who were doomed by fatal diseases and toothless pimps. Rats scurry through the wet fog while blood runs in cobbled gutters like urine. It’s the perfect setting for a madman to carry out his heinous crimes undetected. During a 10-week reign of terror, the butchery of five prostitutes whose organs were removed in a manner that seemed almost ritualistic, and the clues left behind as veiled warnings for the Jews, prompted the theory that the savage crimes might have been the work of a skilled surgeon or a Freemason.
There were many such theories in London’s notorious East End in 1888. While this film plays around with the historical facts, it sticks to the popular theory about Prince Edward, the Duke of Clarence and Queen Victoria’s grandson, which holds that he secretly married a prostitute from Cleveland Street named Annie Crook and fathered her child. According to this theory, there was evidence in Scotland Yard’s files-files which have since mysteriously vanished-that the unfortunate girl was locked away in an asylum, where a crude prefrontal lobotomy was performed on her with an icepick by the honorable Sir William Gull, the Queen’s surgeon, and that the five victims of “the Ripper” were whores who shared in the secret, whom Sir William has disemboweled one by one-with the Queen’s full knowledge-to silence them forever. This theory has since been disproved, but the Duke of Clarence did get around; he later died of syphilis.
From Hell compiles just enough accuracy to make you believe its fantastic assumptions, including the gruesome parade of suspects who were brought in for questioning-butchers, veterinarians, even a policeman. Jews were high on the list because of their money. In any event, the various casebook studies often lead to the secret society of the Freemasons (each time the Ripper’s hands are shown, there’s a Masonic ring on the blood-soaked fingers). It’s quite a chess game, with rooks and pawns in every move, but to the known facts and clues the Hughes brothers add so much Hollywood huggermugger that the film eventually cracks like an elaborate Victorian cachepot weighed down with too much dirt. A fictional detective played by Johnny Depp is assigned to the case and falls in love with Mary Kelly, one of the prostitutes, played by the beautiful but dramatically challenged Heather Graham. By the time this thing wraps up, the unorthodox Scotland Yard inspector has whisked her and Annie Crook’s baby away to the safe haven of a lovely cottage in Ireland, thus altering history and saving the life of the heir to the throne of England. At this point, you’ve passed the heebie-jeebies and started laughing.
Mr. Depp is clearly out of his element as the detective in the cloak and stovepipe hat who sees visions. But since he’s a debauched reprobate addicted to absinthe, laudanum and opium with a history of personal depravity, the casting works. He’s a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Mick Jagger. Heather Graham is much too healthy and radiant to be a convincing whore. The distinguished theatrical giant Ian Holm has no trouble giving the film’s best performance as the dangerous, darkly brooding royal physician, and the excellent Jason Flemyng adds a creepy touch as his psychologically warped carriage driver, collecting and delivering the victims by luring them into the shadows with grapes and laudanum.
The real star of the film is Oscar-winning production designer Martin Childs, who has turned locations in Prague and the Czech Republic into an awesome replica of what Whitechapel looked like in 1888. From the churches to the saloons to the dimly lit alley lodgings where the murders took place, you are transported to the living hell of the title, taken from the return address on a note written in blood by Jack the Ripper and delivered to a London newspaper.
Who was Jack the Ripper? We’ll never know for sure. The Scotland Yard files were sealed for 100 years by Queen Victoria herself, and when they were opened in 1988, there was nothing there. But Jack rips on. One of London’s most popular tourist attractions is a walking tour of the murder sites in Whitechapel that begins at the stroke of midnight in the shadows of All Hallows Church, and scholars are still as obsessed with the crimes as Americans are with the assassination of J.F.K. Violent, bloody, forensically graphic and a triumph of scenic design, From Hell fans the flames again in ways that are, despite its comic-book elements, vastly entertaining.
Then and Now
Focus is a carefully directed, beautifully acted and sincerely written film about racial profiling years before it got a label. Based on a first novel by the young Arthur Miller, Focus communicates, within its tightly constrained running time, the grace and impact of a memorable short story with a long staying power. Set in Brooklyn in 1943, at the height of World War II, when anti-Semitism in Europe was spreading to a kind of phony patriotism in America, Focus tells the harrowing story of an innocent married couple who are mistakenly suspected of being Jewish and then wrongly persecuted in a small town infected with prejudice. The “American Way” was a slogan that excluded anyone who was different, and everyone was suspicious of foreigners. The consequences for people who minded their own business could be lethal.
William H. Macy gives the performance of his life as a dull, shy, unexceptional office worker named Larry Newman who has never interfered, never stood up to be counted, never taken a stand against injustice. When he witnesses a neighbor raping and beating a Puerto Rican woman, he keeps quiet. When a gang of bullies trashes a newspaper and candy store owned by a Jewish man on the corner, he doesn’t make waves. He’s Mr. Cellophane-bland, anonymous, hardly noticeable in a crowd. But his own orderly existence is seriously derailed when his neighbors start eyeing him strangely because his name is Newman. Even his elderly mother takes one look at his new bow tie and horn-rimmed reading glasses and says, “You look Jewish.”
Suddenly the discrimination that had only been leveled at the Jew who operates the corner newsstand finds its way into Larry’s own life. Even his office demotes him because he “doesn’t make the right impression.” Marrying a nice blue-eyed blonde (Laura Dern) doesn’t help, because she’s a flashy dresser who draws attention to herself on a conservative family block. Like Gregory Peck in Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), the Newmans get turned away from a country inn in New England that is “restricted.” The opportunity to straighten out the mess comes when the next-door neighbor, a right-wing redneck well played by Michael Lee (Meat Loaf) Aday, offers Larry a membership in the newly organized Union Crusaders, a hate group with guns and scare tactics. The only intelligent man on the block, Larry is appalled, but his reluctance to play their game enrages the neighbors even more.
The film moves to a quiet but shattering conclusion as the seeds of hate have inescapable consequences, and the film leaves you sober and furious. When Larry finally finds the courage to rebel, you’ll find yourself cheering. First-time director Neal Slavin and screenwriter Kendrew Lascelles have found a visceral way of turning a period piece about the 1940’s into a contemporary film of courage and redemption, with a morality and a conscience that resonates just as strongly today as it did five decades earlier. In its simple, calm, understated way, Focus packs a big punch.