Saturday, July 1, 2006

Moore's Murderer

From Hell (1988-98)
FROM HELL (2001)

Alan Moore has shaped and refined the art of comic book storytelling in a way that no other creator can claim, and may arguably be the mediums only true genius.

NORTHAMPTON scribe Alan Moore was the first modern writer to approach the comic book medium with the same intent and thoughtfulness expected of any successful novel or theatrical production. In an art form that is often dismissed as juvenile, Moore explores adult themes and challenging subjects, but also experiments with form, creating different ways to combine text and image. By adding his own highly tuned sense of playfulness, Moore creates a nexus where readers can embrace some of the deepest aspirations of humankind while exploring the heritage of the comic book universe. From Hell, a post-modern grimoire of Jack the Ripper written by Moore and studiously illustrated by Eddie Campbell, is an exhaustively researched magnum opus, both a baroque conspiracy story and an intricate dissection of the Victorian era. As the Ripper cuts and slashes the "warm corpse of history itself," Moore examines the burgeoning black library of Ripper lore for the facts, then rearranges them in a yarn that transcends the source material.

Starting work on the project exactly a century after the killings it portrays, Moore plays with the idea that the 1880’s were a sort of microcosm of what was going to happen in the 20th century - scientifically, artistically, and politically. The point is not to solve the murders; instead, he is interested in how the crimes have become part of a cultural psyche. Jack the Ripper, in a very real sense, never had a physical existence; he was a collage-creature, made from crank letters, hoaxes, and sensational headlines. Right from their inception, the murders entered the realm of fiction, and the reality of the case has rarely been anything but a sideshow. From Hell presents its Ripper as physician Royal Sir William Gull, commanded by Queen Victoria to suppress the evidence of a bastard born to Prince Albert Victor. Gull decides that he is a magician and that the murders will be acts of social magic, surmising that history itself has a structure, with Freemasonry its architects.

Eddie Campbell illustrates a London that to a large extent no longer exists, yet is arguably the book’s primary character.

One of the greatest attributes of Moore’s work is his deep knowledge of collaboration; his famously detailed scripts are the writer as auteur, but deliberately play to individual artist’s strengths. Through a cinematic sense of place, Campbell’s angry black-and-white renderings effectively convey the Victorians swimming against the tide, brutally bringing to life such realities as street prostitution - the cold, cheap rooms, the alcohol, and biscuits paid for a three pence a fuck (the infamous "thrupenny upright"). As drab as late 19th century London may have been, Moore and Campbell uncover the concealed energy lying below the surface, and From Hell burns with a secret, tragic knowledge.

Adapting the events, but not the narrative focus, of Moore and Campbell’s work, the film version of FROM HELL is imbued with violence, but it is not the violence of the book, rather the macho posturing and strong-arm tactics of Hollywood bad attitude. Scripted and dramatised in the formulaic manner of a serial-killer thriller, FROM HELL is the Whitechapel murders by the way of John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981). Director brothers Albert and Allen Hughes give the impression that an American audience might gain if a British production tried to recreate Metropolis; no luminance is allowed to intrude on the film’s studied gloom, nor is their any evidence of industry, only indolence. Apart from the scene where Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) and Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) saunter through Hampton Court Gardens, FROM HELL offers no relief from the squalor and dark-age superstition which it sees as epitomising the period. None of this is helped by the screenplay’s decision to have the historically respectable Abberline while away his leisure hours in an opium den, and act as a seer afflicted by precognitive glimpses of the killings.

Heather Graham, hopelessly miscast as Mary Kelly, in the film adaptation of FROM HELL.

The murders themselves are varied and stylish, ranging from SE7EN (1996)-style montages to giallo-influenced throat slashing, but given the film had two hands on the directorial tiller, overall it is conventionally handled. Endless crane shots and a surplus of lap dissolves work against the action; one sequence employs time-lapse photography to show the gathering of a crowds around the body of Polly Nichols, but this is a gimmick used in isolation and reminiscent of the glass-ceiling shot in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927). But it is the weak casting of the two leads that is the primary flaw. A glum Depp struggles to maintain his bizarre Scottish/Cockney accent, and Graham radiates a sunny Californian physicality despite her dyed red hair and working girl lilt that would not even pass for a prostitute in modern day Los Angeles, let alone in the mean streets of Victorian London. This problem is amplified further by a superior British supporting cast, including Ian Holm as Gull, and most memorably Jason Flemyng as the Ripper’s coachman, Netley.