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In the autumn of 1888, an unnamed killer went on a 10-week murder spree which still fascinates us 124 years later. The Hughes brothers joined the ranks of the ‘Ripper-freaks’ when they were seven. Now they’ve put everything they know (including ‘Ripper-freak’ Johnny Depp) about Jack the Ripper into the aptly-titled From Hell. Eleanor Singer reports.

For the Hughes brothers, there was no real shift from dealing with the inner-city America that was the backdrop to their first three films - two features (Menace II Society and Dead Presidents) and a documentary, American Pimp - to making a film about London at the tail-end of the 19th century.

“This is a ghetto story,” says Albert of their new film, which focuses on the Whitechapel district of London in the autumn of 1888. From Hell takes place over the 10-week period during which Jack the Ripper committed his grisly series of slayings. “It concerns poverty, violence and corruption, which are themes we deal with in our movies because they fascinate us,” he insists. “These particular characters happen to be white, but all poor people have the same problems.”

"It’s a brilliant, complex and obsessive story"

The brothers’ new movie takes its title from Alan Moore’s graphic novel, which was originally published as a 10-part series in Taboo and, in the two brief years since its first appearance, has already acquired cult status.

“Alan Moore is the dean of graphic novelists,” says From Hell’s producer Don Murphy, who previously delved into the dark side of human nature when he produced Oliver Stone’s controversial Natural Born Killers. “I am a comic-book fan and have admired Don’s work for years. I was immediately hooked by From Hell without even realising at first that it was about Jack the Ripper. It’s a brilliant, complex and obsessive story, well documented with extensive research and pages of footnotes.”

Given the fact that the Hughes brothers’ directorial style is, in a slightly different sense, also extremely graphic, one might have expected them to be drawn to Murphy’s novel for many of the same reasons. But in their case, it turns out that it was first and foremost the subject matter of From Hell that got them involved. Indeed, more than just an interest in those areas of society where poverty and violence collide, the brothers had been nurturing a virtual obsession with the career of Jack the Ripper since early childhood.

Their interest in the tale of the mysterious murderer - whose identity has never been completely confirmed (although a couple of recent books come up with some pretty convincing theories) - began when they were just seven years old, and watching the Leonard Nimoy-presented TV series, In Search of…. “It was so scary that it has stuck in our heads,” says Allen. “We’ve since absorbed everything about the case we can – books, movies, documentaries…”

Indeed, it was in the process of doing extended research into the Ripper case that the brothers realised that they were not alone in their fascination with the autumn 1888 murder spree: Johnny Depp was also, it turns out, a ‘Ripper freak’.

"I was always attracted to things on the darker side" Johnny Depp

“I was always attracted to things on the darker side, especially when I was young,” says the multi-faceted star, who plays the part of police inspector Fred Abberline in the film. “I must have some 25 books, maybe more, on the case. There are so many theories. Any of them could be correct: it’s impossible to know. I’ve always thought it would make a great movie if very carefully done.”

The subject of the man who was the modern world’s first real serial killer came up some six years ago, when the Hughes met Depp to discuss another project and happened to mention casually they were also developing a film about Jack the Ripper. Depp asked to read the script. “I really liked it,” he recalls. “Then suddenly, years later, I get a call from them: ‘How would you like to play Abberline?’”

Depp had been a big fan of the Hughes’ Menace II Society and their subsequent thriller, Dead Presidents. Above all, however, he was impressed with their knowledge of a subject which was already close to his heart. “Allen and Albert have a great passion for the material and have done more research than almost any other director I’ve worked with,” he says. “I’m very familiar with the story, so I know the right questions to ask. And they certainly know the answers.”

Jack the Ripper committed a series of five ritualistic killings of prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London - a dark, smoky maze of narrow, cobbled alleys that was recreated on a 20-acre site near Prague’s Barrandov Studios for the film.
Variously rumoured to have been a cabinet minister, a high-ranking clergyman or a member of the British royal family, the Ripper traumatised Victorian London and may even, in his own words, have “given birth to the 20th century”, in the sense that murders committed more or less for their own sake were all but unknown before he went on the rampage.

"one slightly more dubious achievement"

But there is one slightly more dubious achievement that is certainly traceable to his activities: the beginnings of the British tabloid press. “Before Jack the Ripper, there were a few hundred newspapers in London,” says Depp. “At the height of his murder spree, thousands of additional papers emerged.”

In the film – which has its Australian connection in that it is adapted from Murphy’s novel by Terry Hayes of Mad Max fame and Raphael Yglesias who wrote Peter Weir’s Fearless - Depp plays Fred Abberline, an opium-addicted police Inspector who began his career in Whitechapel and has now been sent back to the area to head the investigation into the Ripper.

Opium was something like the Valium of the late 19th century - a semi-legal drug whose popularity was boosted by the pressures and the sense of alienation that living in Europe’s ever-growing cities brought with it. “Abberline has been beaten up by life,” says Depp, who mastered a perfect Cockney accent for the role after the film’s makers decided that the real Abberline’s Dorset brogue would be just “too weird” for audiences. “He lost his wife and child, and relies on self-medication to get through the day.”

But Abberline’s addiction - which he refers to as “chasing the dragon” - also gives him clairvoyant skills, and these provide the vital extra insights into the Ripper’s world.

In classic police-movie tradition, Abberline’s subordinate on the case is a down-to-earth Scottish cop called Godley (Robbie Coltrane). Godley’s approach to police work is much more straightforward: he relies on tangible evidence and eyewitness accounts. But he is a loyal friend to Abberline, looks after him while he is under the influence, and grudgingly accepts that his boss’ supernatural talents do occasionally bear fruit.

"he accepts Abberline’s visions as genuine" Robbie Coltrane

“It’s contrary to Godley’s nature,” says Coltrane, a familiar face to British televiewers but probably best-known around the world for playing the larger-than-life Russian entrepreneur Valentin Zukovsky in the two most recent James Bond movies – and Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. “But he accepts Abberline’s visions as genuine and feels compelled to act on them.”

What differentiates this version of the story from other big and small-screen versions of the Ripper legend is the focus on the struggles of the Whitechapel prostitutes who are the killer’s victims. “Previous accounts of this story have been antiseptic, told from the eyes of the prim upper class,” says Allen Hughes. “We’re revealing it from the perspective of the people who lived in squalor in the neighbourhood where this terror was inflicted.”

Foremost among these is Mary Kelly, an Irish-born streetwalker who yearns to return to the innocence of her childhood, and who forms an allegiance with Abberline, in whom she recognises a kindred spirit. Her life is the flip-side of the growing prosperity of Victorian London - one of the women whose very existence has been turned into a commodity which has so little intrinsic value that it was relatively easy for the authorities to hush up their killings.

“My character and her friends live on the edge of starvation in this horrible slum. Each day is a struggle, and having a place to sleep is a luxury,” says Heather Graham, who won the role of Mary despite the Hughes’ original intention that the role should be played by an unknown English actress.

"there was something about her that made you want to save her" about Heather Graham

“When Heather walked in the room, there was something about her that made you want to save her,” says executive producer Amy Robinson. “I think the brothers were looking for that in Mary Kelly - someone who has not hardened and who made you feel, ‘We’ve got to get this girl out of Whitechapel. We don’t want her to die.’”

Less lucky are Mary’s friends, played by Lesley Sharp, Susan Lynch, Katrin Cartlidge and Annabelle Apsion, with each actress being fitted with ever more ghastly prosthetics as the Hughes brothers strove for their usual graphic realism. For Cartlidge, this was a doubly unpleasant experience. Not only were the completed special effects so horrible that she couldn’t look at herself in the mirror: it also completely ruined her first meeting with Johnny Depp.

“I’m lying dead on the ground and he’s leaning down into my face to smell my breath,” says the actress who has worked with such leading European directors as Mike Leigh and Lars von Trier. “And I’m thinking, ‘He’s looking at the ugliest thing he’s ever seen! I have a slit throat and entrails over my shoulder and three flies walking on my face. This is not the way I wanted to meet Johnny Depp!”

But the extremely graphic nature of the killings is the other side of the coin to the exploration of the lives of those who fell victim to the Ripper in From Hell (the title comes from a ‘return address’ the Ripper put on one of his notes). “The victims of Jack the Ripper have never been humanised,” declares Allen Hughes. “We wanted to give them life. They weren’t just casualties: they were human beings.”

Published February 14, 2002

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