Flashback! To “From Hell…!”

The Johnny Depp/Ian Holm version, of course.


I’ll tell you, it definitely is a version of something, but that thing isn’t “From Hell”.

Sadly, it isn’t even really a Jack The Ripper story.

This goes way beyond crap, and into a whole other category: “things that are flung”. Awful in a way few comic-book adaptations can touch: just really bad. And why?

Because of Ian Holm, weirdly enough.

You see, it is just so stupid: they knew they couldn’t make From Hell, so they thought they’d make something like it, but then they didn’t even do that. Instead they took THE most rusty old piece of Hollywood boilerplate they could find, tacked on a couple disjointed bits of dialogue from the comic, and proceeded to go through the motions with a lack of self-examination that I personally find incredible…the latest Indiana Jones was a better movie than this. Spider-Man 3 was better than this. You think I’m joking. I’m not. And I’ll tell you why.

Because could there ever have been the slightest doubt, in anyone’s mind, who Jack The Ripper was, in this movie?

Which, I might remind you, is what the damn thing’s about.

From Hell wasn’t about this. Reading the comic, you found out what was going on pretty quick, with a sort of dawning horror…but not here. Here, it must all come down to a revelatory confrontation: the detective triumphant. And so the audience must not know!

And yet, they do know. It is so painfully obvious that there could be no way for them not to know, that it almost makes you want to weep. And is this what you see a Jack The Ripper movie for? For that so-laboured conclusion when the villain — oh no it was the guy you thought was your friend! — casts aside his human mask? Is this what we pay our twelve bucks for, just to wait and wait and wait for the thing we all know will happen anyway? Because there is no way it couldn’t happen! It has no choice but to happen. It has become the whole point of the exercise. “It was…why, it was you all along!” “I’m afraid so, dear boy…”

Disgusting. Poor Ian.

What a waste of talent.

So here’s the thing about Moore and Campbell’s opus: not only was it very well-told, but it was fascinating. It was fascinating because it contained many things we (if you’re like me, that is) didn’t know — not just about Ripperology but about London itself. And the funny thing about people is that they like finding new stuff out. Heck, if you needed an example of this, you wouldn’t even have to go so far as a high-quality comic like From Hell; why not try Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” instead? Everybody read this thing; but, why?

Because of the deathless prose?

Of course not. They read it because they’d never heard of any of that stuff before. Blade and chalice, Merovingians, gnostics, secret symbols in famous artworks — an entire language of symbolism floating just beneath the surface of life. That’s what they read it for. Because that stuff’s cool.

But you won’t find any of it in the From Hell movie!

You’ll find a conflicted cop, a hooker with a heart of gold, and a frail old mentor with a deep dark secret — no spoilers here! — well, none are possible! — and the only thing you’ll find, that was yanked from Ripperology, that the average person might not be aware of, is the Royal angle…and when you’ve made that stuff out you’ve got nothing left to care about.

I know people who thought the movie they made from The Name Of The Rose — that big international bestseller, remember? — was a farce. That it missed the point of the book entirely.

But those people — and I am looking at one right now, in the reflection of the computer screen — had better try to keep up a little better, from now on. Because the From Hell movie rather redefines the concept of “missing the point entirely”, so stupidly does it plunge into the shallow waters of Screenwriting 101. I mean, it makes you wonder — it really does! — how anyone ever thought this was a good idea at all. Ian Holm as William Gull, in this movie? It’s like putting a gold bar in your toilet tank to conserve water when you flush: it’s moronic. Just look at Ian Holm, the man radiates significance, and yet there he is spending THE WHOLE MOVIE just sitting around, pretending to be not much of a character. How could such a feebleminded mistake have been made? Did no one think, at any point, of how terrifically Ian could have inhabited the role of the Gull we see in the comic? Because he could have, you know.

Spooky it is not. Interest? It has none. Oh, hooray, Johnny Depp’s the hero! Gosh, I just knew he could do it…gulp you mean the nice old man is really a murderer? OH NO!!!

This movie could’ve just as easily been made starring Bruce Willis and Abe Vigoda. Hell, it would’ve been better if it had. I mean, forget Watchmen; Watchmen’s nothing to get anxious about. No one’s attempting to discard the story of Watchmen. But this, this isn’t even LXG, you know? For Christ’s sake, it isn’t even the freakin’ DaVinci Code. It’s just empty mummery. Absolutely pointless. “Well, the two principal actors have to have a relationship on screen, after all…” Yes, they sort of do. Of course they do.

But to actually sacrifice story to that necessity…

“How lame, the hair of Tom.” Hey yeah, his hair is lame! But at least they kept the freakin’ Merovingian stuff in there, you know? And the symbols and the secrets and the puzzles. They were dumb secrets and puzzles, mostly; but, the audience didn’t know that, so it was okay. In the end — and I cannot believe I am saying this — the audience of The DaVinci Code came away from it with something the audience of From Hell didn’t: a new perspective on the past, and the present.

Not just the drawing-room scene, where you find out that whoever the villain pretty much had to be, he pretty much was.

Poor Ian. Brilliant as always. But who could hope to triumph over material this impossible? They gave him nothing to do, except give the game away. Somehow they took the idea of casting Ian Holm as William Gull, and used it to make From Hell boring.

Like Rumplestiltskin in reverse.

6 responses to “Flashback! To “From Hell…!”

  1. Amen, brother. I had the same kind of “wait and wait and wait” experience when I saw The Sixth Sense with some friends who’d been raving about it (luckily it was a free showing — I was a poor college student — so no twelve bucks were harmed in the making of this story) and I was going along thinking oh all right, this isn’t too bad, and looking forward to the much-lauded surprise ending and… then it ended up being something that I’d assumed we were supposed to know from about 15 minutes into the movie! You get what you pay for, I guess.

    What really boggled my mind though is that the friends who’d gone with me had seen it before, and they still liked it!

    I happened to catch a few minutes of it on TV a couple of years later, and even though it was a section toward the beginning that didn’t have much to say about The Big Secret because it was still setting things up, I still found it absolutely intolerable. The thought of waiting and waiting and waiting just to be told something obvious made me switch the TV off posthaste, and that was without a really good book to compare it to.

    My favorite part was the psychogeography of London, which of course I was sure wasn’t gonna make it into no movie anyway… but damn, if they managed it for The DaVinci Code…! I never saw that. I never even saw most of From Hell. I don’t need to. It seems the Hollywood machine can chew up anything and spit out the same crap, no matter what you feed it.

  2. Bravo. I agree with every word.
    (BTW, I know I owe you an email response still to your long message… I’ve been suffering writer’s block for weeks now, as you can probably tell, and can only just manage the substandard stuff I’ve been putting on my blog. I will reply to you when I can think again…)

  3. You know every person I know who has read the original book has hated the movie I think. But I never read it, so I found the movie ok. Nothing better or worse than..say Sleepy Hollow

  4. Ah, God, there’s another crap movie that got high monetary rewards for how it fascinated with new information…even worse that the DaVinci Code…but damned if I can remember it at the moment. Jeez, worse than the DaVinci code, you’d think I could remember that! But, not at the moment.

    Holly: heck yeah, thought if no one had told me there was a typical mid-Nineties “twist” in play I might’ve been fooled for ten seconds longer. People, if your movie has a “twist” in it, for fuck’s sake don’t tell anybody it does!!

    And I’ll maintain there were ways to have the characters talk about the psychogeography of London without necessary requiring any similar leaps from the audience…but then what do I know, I’m the guy who says Watchmen #4 has no way of being adequately executed in a movie. And there appears to be a contradiction in there somewhere.

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