How was the new Jack the Ripper film received at the scene of his crimes?
‘Love a duck!…I should cocoa!…’Ow’s yer father?’
Such were the cod-cockney phrases yelled at the screen of a cinema in Whitechapel, east London showing From Hell, the new film about the Jack the Ripper murders. The murders happened in Whitechapel in 1888 – but that didn’t spook the audience.
From Hell stars Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, who make noble but doomed attempts at cockney accents. Depp pulled off a passable impression of Basil Rathbone’s posh English accent in his last nineteenth-century horror film, Sleepy Hollow. But in From Hell the cockney accent defeats him.
US critic Roger Ebert reckons Depp’s performance is deliberate comedy: ‘very, very subtle comedy – so droll he hopes we think he’s serious.’ (1) But there was nothing subtle about the reaction of this East-End audience. While one half of the audience howled with laughter at the accents, the other half covered their eyes in disgust at all the blood and guts.
From Hell is based on a grim comic book series about the Ripper murders, which enjoys a cult following (2). Like the comic book, the film painstakingly recreates the gore and grime of Victorian London. Directors Albert and Allen Hughes, whose previous credits include black ghetto dramas Menace II Society and Dead Presidents and the hard-hitting documentary American Pimp, are no strangers to pushing the envelope.
But in their adaptation of From Hell, the sex and violence only serves to make the farcical elements in the film more surreal. And it’s not just the accents – the Ripper entices his prostitute victims with grapes, which were an expensive delicacy in the 1880s. It’s an interesting conceit, but this audience was having none of it – as the detectives lifted yet another telltale sprig from a mutilated corpse, somebody yelled ‘Oh no! Not the grapes!’.
In the comic book, the central character was a straightforward detective, but here he has been turned into a drug-addicted clairvoyant – turning what was originally a serious historical fiction into a Victorian X-Files episode. From Hell is probably best compared with the output of Hammer studios, which similarly ranged from the camp to the effectively creepy, often within the same film (3).
The least effective aspect of From Hell is its ridiculous theory about Jack the Ripper – involving the Royal Family conspiring with the Freemasons to carry out the Ripper murders. The theory isn’t new – originally proposed by Stephen Knight in his 1976 bestseller Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (4), and since used as the plot for several other Ripper films.
But it is telling that this conspiracy theory still has resonance today, and is still embraced by Hollywood. At a time when the Queen’s Golden Jubilee is attracting little public enthusiasm, and the most prominent Freemason is clapped-out British comedian Jim Davidson, it’s oddly reassuring to imagine a past when institutions like these masterminded murder.
See the From Hell official website
(1) From Hell, review by Roger Ebert
(2) From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Buy the collected edition from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
(3) See the Hammer Film Productions website
(4) Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, Stephen Knight, 1976. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
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