Sunday, September 09, 2012

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #24--From Hell (2001)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

It could have been anyone. These girls might have very well known the guy, and at the same time, it could have been some major conspiracy. It's impossible to know.  Johnny Depp on Jack the Ripper

It's gruesome.
The Hughes Brothers, best known for depicting ghetto life in films, such as Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, take their talents to 17th century England in From Hell. The film chronicles Jack the Ripper's five serial murders of prostitutes in London's Whitechapel District from August to November of 1888. (The film's title comes from pieces of evidence--letters supposedly written by the killer and signed, "From Hell.") Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell follows Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp), a clairvoyant drug addict enlisted by police sergeant Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane) to help solve the mystery and prevent more murders from happening. As Abberline uncovers the conspiracy, he falls for Mary Kelly (Heather Graham)--one of the women targeted by the killer--which makes this assignment a personal race to save her.

But The Hughes Brothers got style!
Why was I so concerned a few months ago about revisiting Before Night Falls, a beautiful film about a struggling poet, when I had a disturbing movie about Jack the Ripper to soon follow? I must have blocked this one out of my head. I remember seeing From Hell in the theaters but forgot how gritty and realistic it all was. Heather Graham explains that Hughes Brothers touch: "I think they're bringing to the movie a real rawness. Instead of this overly precious period feel, I think they're bringing a raw, emotional, passionate, exciting take."

While this isn't typically my kind of movie, I always love that kind of detail in films and admire what The Hughes Brothers made. They rebuilt Whitechapel to a tee: They showed what the world was like then--how it looked, felt,  and smelled. Johnny agrees: "What was really impressive about it is that the Hughes Brothers, Allen and Albert, were really, really, really sticklers for details and for the truth--the exact position of the body, the exact position of this window here, where the window was broken in Miller's Court--I mean, down to the cobblestones!" But all that hard work didn't weigh down the set: "They're so fun," Heather Graham says of the directors. "They're so well prepared and everything is so well thought out that, when they came to work, they're just incredibly relaxed."

Like Before Night Falls, this film is not always pleasant to watch, but it's got great style. When I dreamt up Johnny Kitties, certain movies lent themselves well to drawing: I got instant ideas. Surprisingly,  one of them was for From Hell. I remembered a few exterior shots of Whitechapel silhouetted against a blood-red sky (and the grapes, more on that later). Another cool touch the directors added was showing the passage of time by literally speeding up the film or having people appear or vanish like spirits. They also lit all the nighttime scene naturally with streetlamps, candles, or other lighting props on the set, which I think adds to the atmosphere. And, they even made some mini-movies within this movie: One of the plot points is that Abberline is struggling with his chronic depression by feeding his addiction to Absinthe. This addiction would be hard to kick, even if  he wanted to, because it turns out that the drink sparks his clairvoyant dreams, in which he sees the killer's next move and gets that much closer in solving the case. These dreams present entire scenarios in artistic, surreal flashes of images.

As the killer descends into madness, the murders become increasingly grisly. More than anything, I appreciated that the directors didn't show as much as they could have! The point is made more effectively because your imagination goes wild about whatever might be going on. Still, you see enough to know the murders are disgusting. And, knowing that Jack the Ripper was a real psychopath who terrorized London and escaped capture--that the mystery remains unsolved--compounds the shock.

But what I found almost more disturbing was the bigger picture. The Hughes Brothers painstakingly recreated how people lived in Whitechapel, showing how they suffered, with social barriers, prejudices, and racism, and dealt with their own vices. Meanwhile, across town, high society was exploring medical breakthroughs and oddities: In one scene all the rich doctors are gawking at the Elephant Man. In another, they're calmly demonstrating a new experimental procedure, giving terrified patients lobotomies! Those scenes freak me out more than hearing Jack slashing whatever off-screen.

You get a real feel for the atmosphere and realize the sad circumstances these women--the murder victims--were in during that era, dealing with the hypocritical connection that wealthy society had to them and the overbearing control men had over their lives. The film presents a conspiracy reaching as far up as the royal family. Seeing From Hell this time around, I was intrigued by the murder mystery.  With so many suggested suspects, it'll keep you on edge and guessing till the end.

And Johnny's in it--and into it!
Brad Pitt was originally slated to play Abberline. Can you imagine!? Luckily, it wasn't meant to be. When Johnny signed on for From Hell instead, those in charge at the studio were worried--as usual. "Studios love Johnny, but they're scared of Johnny too," Albert Hughes says. "They don't necessarily see him as a bankable star because of his own choices. He's made interesting choices instead of the obvious choices." 

On the set: Johnny with Allen and Albert Hughes
As a kid, Johnny was fascinated by the Jack the Ripper story. (Do you think his parents were ever concerned?)  "The guy was serious!" Allen Hughes confirms. "He actually did own a lot of the books for many years and knew a lot of the theories. He was a buff!" 

Everyone was impressed with Johnny's work. While they all admired him as an actor already, working with him on this project took their opinions to another level. Having worked on From Hell for 5 years, Allen Hughes explains that Johnny's excitement about it was contagious and boosted both directors' confidences, helping them to keep going and get the movie made: "Everyone's all over him as an actor, but when it comes to the script, when it comes to ideas, when it comes to overall energy and intelligence and what he brings that's intangible to the project, it's like, wow, this guy doesn't get enough credit!" Not that he ever slacks in the acting department: "The thing about Johnny Depp is that it's cliche to say that he's a great actor who doesn't appear to be acting, but he really doesn't!" scriptwriter Rafael Yglesias says. "I'm convinced that there's 60 to 70% of him that isn't even working most of the time because he can so quickly reach a performance that's absolutely excellent." Agreed!

The Kitties are on the lookout.
What I like most about this movie is the historical accuracy, the details involved, and the overall style. You feel like you're there and you're always on edge. Like the Hughes Brothers, instead of depicting all the blood and guts, I opted for atmosphere and surroundings in this tribute.

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #24--From Hell (2001) [June 17, 2012]

The Jack the Ripper case was one of the first to be fully dramatized by the media. Here, Abberline investigates one of the murders amid a growing crowd who want a glimpse of the sensational crime scene. (You can find Norman, Simon, and Comet policing the crowd of onlookers, including The Mother Kitty, Mini, Lily, and Ashes.)  Amid the chaos, he discovers grape stems and shows them to Sergeant Godley (B.J.), explaining that this clue points to a killer who is wealthy enough to afford such luxurious fruit. It must be someone from the other side of town!

What's Next?
Johnny teams up again with Terry Gilliam, but they get Lost in La Mancha!

All film images © 20th Century Fox; on-set image © unknown (courtesy of; illustration © Melissa Connolly

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