Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Chasing the Dragon: From Hell (2001)

I still haven’t read the groundbreaking and legendary comic book series of the same name, created by the equally legendary soothsayers of pen and ink, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, which originally clawed its way to savage life in Steve Bissette’s marvelous and short-lived graphic novel horror series Taboo. So this short review will not mount a comparison of the original source material against the film. But for all its faults—and there are several, including the horrible miscasting of the otherwise fine Heather Graham as London prostitute Mary Kelly—the film is nevertheless a brooding, atmospheric bad dream that generates such an inescapable sense of dread unlike any recent horror film of the last ten years outside of Lynch’s Lost Highway. London seethes with evil and degradation, and the city streets bleed malevolence. A perfect hunting ground for the infamous Jack the Ripper. Within this sewer of humanity a series of gruesome murders are committed on the city’s prostitutes and the authorities, led by the opium smoking, absinthe drinking Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp), are at their wits end trying to uncover who is responsible. But is there a greater purpose or a grand conspiracy to the sex killings? Is it possible that the murders lead all the way to the doors of Buckingham Palace? Is there more than one person doing the Devil’s work?

Depp is fine as Inspector Abberline, but it’s the supporting cast that really keeps the film from suffocating underneath the weight of its hallucinatory visuals and aggressive auditory rumbling. Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, Jason Flemyng, and last but certainly not least, Katrin Cartlidge, all elevate From Hell to a sublime experience for me. The sorely missed Cartlidge—she died suddenly at the age of 41 from complications from pneumonia and septicaemia—steals every scene she’s in (what’s new?) as Dark Annie Chapman and she would have made a perfect Mary Kelly if the filmmakers had had the balls to cast her in the lead. Alas, directors Allen and Albert Hughes didn’t and we’re left with only glimpses of what could’ve been.

I’m not a Ripperologist by any means, and I’ve certainly not watched all of the numerous films made about the killings—my favorite, though, is the 1944 version of The Lodger starring Laird Cregar. But for many reasons, from the relentless atmosphere of evil seemingly awaiting around every corner to the no exit fates of poverty, disease, and violence that is the day to day existence for the women of the streets, From Hell is certainly the most oppressive and nightmare-inducing version that I’ve yet seen. And that makes for one hell of a good horror film.

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