November 9, 2001

The menace to Victorian London, prostitutes

Few people are as notorious as Jack the Ripper, and I couldn't tell you why. For all intents and purposes, Jack the Ripper was a little like anthrax: he killed a few people in a certain profession, yet still induced panic-induced nausea in large numbers of people in his general area, who undoubtedly demanded up-to-the-minute coverage on whatever the Victorian version of CNN was. Flippant analogies aside, the fact remains that Jack has probably received more attention than any other serial killer, despite the facts that, (a) he only killed five people, and (b) he has been dead for most likely over 100 years. Yes, the murders were bloody. Yes, his identity is unknown. Yes, he has a catchy name. That does not make him more important, than, say, all the other people in the Victorian era who actually did constructive and important things and who nobody remembers anymore, like Gladstone. Just because Gladstone spent his time legislating things and not skulking around the London slums dissecting prostitutes, he is relegated to history books and not Hollywood. Fate is cruel.

To get (more or less) to the point, yet another work has just been deposited into the vast vault of the Jack the Ripper canon: From Hell (which, if there were any justice would be Gladstone: The Musical) by the Hughes brothers (who should be ashamed of themselves). To give it that extra creepy feel, they cast Johnny Depp, who seems to have made a career out of playing characters alienated from the world around them, usually tormented. As usual, he does a good job, but you get the feeling you've seen his Inspector Abberline before: an outsider at the bottom of the social ladder trying to get to the bottom of a case seemingly too fantastic to be human (Sleepy Hollow) while doing a lot of drugs (Blow). To give it box office appeal, they cast Heather Graham, who's pretty and perky and as out of place as a turd in the drawing room. Because this is not the London we all thought we knew, not the London of Austin Powers or Bridget Jones; no, this is the London that is really . . . HELL hahahahahahaha. Actually, it's Whitechapel, which, although most likely a pretty rough neighborhood, probably does not have a perpetually red sky with ominous streaky clouds, but dammit, it's a metaphor. See, it's in the title. See? See?

So we are ushered into Hell (Whitechapel) with a shot of the aforementioned red sky (a meteorological miracle) where we get introduced to the Hooker Barbie and the Powderpuff Prostitutes, who have a problem: some nasty gang wants to kill them. And sure enough, that very night . . . you can take it from there. Suffice to say that the wily duo of Edward Scissorhands and Rollergirl battle their way through fake blood, horribly mutilated set pieces, absinthe- and opium-inspired visions, free lobotomies all around, more fake blood, and "colorful" extras like the Elephant Man, toughs with scars, and some naked tattooed Asians to try and prove that, although the Ripper's identity has been argued about for over a hundred years, HOLLYWOOD KNOWS.

Unfortunately, Hollywood does know, and that's most of the problem. Jack the Ripper is only menacing in his anonymity; expose his identity and he becomes just another guy with a complex. Faced with an unknown and unstoppable enemy, even Heather Graham can fake being scared (Oh. My. God. What do you mean the dye won't, like, wash out? I'm supposed to be blonde!), and in the first hour and a half (or so), during which that's all she or anyone else is doing, things go fine. From Hell is at its most effective when it concerns itself with the helplessness of the situation — nobody knows why these women are getting killed, and it seems as if the people in charge don't really want know. The Hughes brothers capture what is undoubtably the spirit of the graphic novel on which the movie is based, creating a London which is more dream than reality, through which the shadow of the killer stalks like a figure from a nightmare. The women cannot escape this dream world in which they live any more than they can escape Jack the Ripper — they were born in it, and they will die in it, one way or another.

It is at this point that the plot kicks in and everyone shifts out of dream-mode into now-we-have-to-find-the-killer-and-stop-him mode. This is also the point at which the murders get more explicit, Heather Graham starts trying to think, and things just get silly. The plot starts to twist, and twist again, and again, and again until, as far as I could tell, everyone involved got so confused and turned-around that they didn't know what to do next and so just winged it and hoped for the best. Nothing is as it seems, nobody is who you think they really are, blah blah blah, without any thought to why it happened, why it was able to happen, and what the ramifications would be. In their haste to get its preternaturally convoluted solution over with, the Hughes brothers ignore any questions they may have raised earlier in the movie about class and gender, authority, power and its abuses, or even dreams and reality, leaving the audience with nothing but unconventional camera angles and copious amount of gore. Prior to this, the Hugheses gave us Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. I have not seen either of these films, but they have been described to me as, respectively, "a modern classic" and "you wanted it to be good but it wasn't" (Clarence, from Manhattan). From Hell leans a little too much towards Dead Presidents and a little too far from Menace II Society. Like Heather Graham's head, it is beautiful, but, in the end, empty.