From Hell
dir. Allen and Albert Hughes
Opens Fri Oct 19 at the Metro, Meridian 16, others.

In the bible black of modern psychopaths, Jack the Ripper is the Book of Genesis. Arriving at the dawn of commodity culture, with the rise of mass media painting a shiny gloss on his ignominy, he single-handedly created a genre known as the Serial Killer. Jack was the first murderer to achieve full-scale sex symbol-dom, the first to hold a culture rapt with a guilty glee, the first celebrity whose flower of fame was watered with blood.

Given the Ripper's cultural omnipotence and the flexible ease with which he translates into metaphor, it's surprising that literal portrayals of Jack on the big screen have been a mixed bag: more goofy than gory, more commedia dell'arte than danse macabre.

A Study in Terror (1965), based on an Ellery Queen novel, puts Sherlock Holmes on the case and suffocates under its own silliness. The Ruling Class (1971), a satire starring Peter O'Toole, concerns an insane aristocrat who thinks he's Jesus, until his family convinces him that his delusions are of a much nastier nature. The movie is an entertaining send-up on stodgy English people, but that's about it. And there's the well-plotted but horribly executed Time After Time (1979), in which Jack, running from Scotland Yard, steals his friend H.G. Wells' time machine, and travels to modern day San Francisco. What makes this picture worth watching is David Warner's skittish Ripper. Tall, sweaty, and unsure about his identity, Warner's Jack is an insecure madman, plagued by doubt, longing for laudanum and release. When he roams through San Fran's red light district, all his obsessions and perversions confirmed, he moves like a disbelieving child on Christmas morning, with the gaze of a lost prophet.

But Jack isn't really about insecurity. He's about seduction. So the films that impart the true terror of the Ripper are ones in which he is portrayed in spirit rather than name. Paramount among this group is Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter is the true Ripper, the intellectual-as-murderer, the hairy-handed gent who ran amok in Kent. Like Jack, Lecter needs his clothes to be as sharp as his knife. And Hopkins, with his bloodless cheeks and thin mouth providing a steely counterpoint to the gentle hints of his sea-blue eyes, is perfect. One can easily imagine him enacting this sensuous ambiguity in the misty streets of Whitechapel.

Another film that movingly interprets Jack's sick dualities is Alfred Hitchcock's first artistic success, The Lodger (1926). Based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger is the story of a family that takes in a mysterious boarder, who over time becomes a suspect in a series of murders. The film's vision is its balance of paranoia and adulation for the killer, who goes by the name of "the Avenger" and kills only blond women. Scenes where potential victims mock each other's fears of being his next victim, and a detective's assertion that he and the Avenger have much in common, are among cinema's first commentaries on the sympathies we can have with those elements of ourselves we find unacceptable. Filmed in a German expressionist style, with chiaroscuro light and thick black darkness creating an exaggerated pantomime, the emerging ugliness of the collective viewing audience--the big We--comes through with a hideous intensity.

The latest cinematic stab at understanding Jack's heart of darkness, the Hughes Brothers-directed From Hell, opens this Friday. Based on the Alan Moore-Eddie Campbell graphic novel of the same name, From Hell promises to be the fullest cinematic exploration yet of the Ripper-as-muse, his crimes functioning as the diseased womb for that confluence of private, public, and technological complications known as the Cult of Personality. To Moore and Campbell, Jack's pathology, egged on by our shameful fascination, constitutes the DNA code for our century of ultraviolence. One can only hope that the film, which stars Johnny Depp as Inspector Abberline, stays put in the book's plot line of conspiracy, class issues, and collective unconscious, and does not become, say, a love story between Depp and Heather Graham, who plays Mary Kelly, a prostitute and one of the Ripper's victims. Such a diversion would waste a fine opportunity to understand this shadowy, anonymous figure, whose crimes, 100 years later, still hold a mirror up to our darkest attentions.