Being trusted with the making of a film about the gruesome deeds of infamous Jack the Ripper was no easy task for filmmakers Albert and Allen Hugues. It’s a project they’ve had in mind for several years, since they completed Dead Presidents (1995). In the meantime, the two brothers worked on a documentary they unequivocally entitled American Pimp (2000), which basically manages to cast a friendly light on a much depreciated profession: the organization of female prostitution by male « protectors ». Set in turn-of-the-century London, From Hell might seem like a bit of a break from their past work. Their first feature, Menace II Society (1993), described the rise and fall of small time criminals and drug dealers in LA’s ghettoized black neighborhoods. Also considered a ‘black film’, Dead Presidents, managed to artfully combine five distinct genres: it starts as your usual coming-of-age drama to plunge into the horror of the Vietnam War, returning home to a ‘hood movie that turns into a heist film. The Hugues Brothers have said the break was intentional: they are tired of being labeled ‘black filmmakers’, their films are about human nature. From Hell is basically an investigation film. It opts for the theory of an upper class criminal and gives complexity to the main character, the talented drug-addicted Inspector Abberline whose main breakthroughs come to him in opium-induced dreams. Johnny Depp is unsurprisingly good at impersonating your usual extremely smart yet vaguely depressed detective. Like Menace II Society and Dead President, From Hell is heavily marked by what the two filmmakers rightfully call their ‘style’, and which Fox hired them for: rich colors, suggestive camera work, gory effects, ample use of filters. In fact, From Hell includes a number of themes the Hugues Brothers have explored in their previous films, such as economic destitution, extreme violence and the fascination for human mutilation. The focus is not only on Abberline, but also on the prostitutes that are the Ripper’s victims, and the price of a life, whether a London prostitute’s in 1900 or a Watts drug-addict’s in the 1990s, does not amount to much. Traumatized from his years in Vietnam, Dead Presidents‘main character became a butcher whose fantasies about cutting up red meat are similar to the demented pleasure From Hell‘s serial killer takes in carving out hearts and bowels. Unfortunately, the supposedly compassionate look at the prostitutes and their squalid environment horribly fails, giving them none of the human dignity the directors allowed Caine and O’Dog in Menace II Society, or Anthony in Dead Presidents. Is it because the Hugues Brothers could not relate to white characters in the same way? Actually, it seems like there is a lot more that is unconvincing about the film, starting with the complicated and unexciting plot involving free masonry and the British crown. The film is more violent than scary, offering a somewhat too clear-cut separation between good and evil, which is fundamentally reassuring. So let it not be said that African American filmmakers cannot deal with the non-black psyche, but rather that they can put all their heart into a film, and miss the target. From Hell is far from the worst horror film Hollywood ever made, but it’s certainly not Albert and Allen’s best.
From Hell (2001). Directed by Albert and Allen Hugues. Starring Johnny Depp (Inspector Abberline), Ian Holm (Sir William Gull), Heather Graham (Mary Kelly). Cinematography: Peter Deming. An Underworld Entertainment Production for 20th Century Fox.///Article N° : 5565