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Forgotten Females Part 4: The Hughes Brothers’ “FROM HELL”

Wednesday, August 18, 2021 | Deep Dives


FROM HELL opens with a shot of an opium pipe being smoked. This unsubtle phallic object serves to represent male power while the vapour that emerges symbolizes the women of the film whose lives will be exhaled before disappearing into the air. We are presented with a London skyline in the year 1888 which appears high above the intoxicated eyeballs of Police Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) before the camera pans down to the subterranean-like streets below. Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) is a woman with a commanding presence, and we first see her standing with arms folded on the bustling streets. As the throngs of the city circulate around her, she remains still, rooted to the ground. She engages with the community and it’s clear she is well-liked. However, as a sex worker, she is immediately objectified by the leering comments she receives from men. Mary proves that although she may fear the power such men hold over her, she is able to handle herself as she confidently tells them to ‘piss off.’ When pulled down an alleyway by a gang she and her friends are indebted to, she is subjected to violent and threatening attacks, a fate that women will suffer repeatedly throughout the course of the film. 

At a boarding house, we see Mary and her friends being released from a thick and binding rope that holds them in place, a commentary on the restraints that are imposed upon them in their day-to-day lives. The women convene around a trough to dress and discuss their predicament with the gang. Ann, (Joanna Page) a woman who has made it out of prostitution, offers to talk to her husband to help release them from debt, indicating a strong sisterhood even through change of circumstance. Now a free woman, we witness Ann enjoying sex with her husband Albert (Mark Dexter). During intercourse, she is on top and taking the lead, indicating that she is a woman in control. This pleasure, however, does not last long and before she can reach orgasm the house is raided by the police, and she is taken away. Interrogated by an officer who holds a knife to her whilst surrounded by three other men watching, Ann finds herself (just like Mary) in a dangerous and vulnerable position. 

When we first encounter the ripper, he remains faceless and impossible to identify. The first death occurs as he leaps out from the dark and all we are shown is a knife being wielded. In the scene that follows, the nakedness of two female bodies in an opium den stands in contrast to the brutal murder we have just seen. These women are surrounded by men who fawn over them, and we do not get a close-up of their faces or their expressions. Instead, the camera eroticizes and objectifies their bodies, their very nakedness highlighting their vulnerability. 

Flashes of a female body being attacked by the ripper flood the screen without warning and we learn that this is the vision of Abberline who experiences premonitions of the women’s deaths. At the mortuary Abberline and his superior Sergeant Godley (Robbie Coltrane) examine the body of the murdered Ann as the latter declares: ‘she is not the woman of your dreams.’ We learn that her throat was cut as was her ‘livelihood’, a degrading and distasteful reference to her genitalia which assumes that its only function is to make money. Her skirt is also pulled up at this moment to illustrate the point further to Abberline, an action that is undignified for Ann and totally unnecessary. This gesture is repeated again at the viewing of the second body where once more the skirt of the victim is lifted up demeaningly, exposing her intimate parts as a huddle of men surround her. At the site of the deaths, photographs are taken of entrails spilling out, dehumanizing and sensationalizing the corpses. On one occasion, a white sheet is brought out to preserve the modesty of a victim but this is only done after everyone has had the opportunity to take in the horror of the ripper’s handiwork.

At the workhouse, a large group of men gather in an operating theatre to observe a lobotomy on (the now mentally broken) Ann as Doctor Ferral (Paul Rhys) advises his fellow practitioners that she is ‘hysterical and delusional.’ Conveniently he fails to mention that strapped to a bed with her head held in place, she has clearly been mistreated and driven to the brink of insanity. The men view her not as a fellow human being who is suffering but as an object of experimentation as they watch through a dividing window while Doctor Ferral (the key is in the name!) claims to have ‘alleviated her suffering’. In a later scene at the police station, a cohort of men stand and listen to Abberline looking at the photographs of the crime scenes demonstrating that even in death these women are still being gawped at and examined by men’s eyes. 

Likewise, whenever the victims of the ripper are discarded onto the streets of London, they are soon surrounded by a flock of men who gather to stare at the female corpses. When Abberline arrives on the scene of one murder he proceeds to touch the body before finding a grapevine, an expensive food at the time which indicates that the perpetrator is middle/upper class. He caresses the victims’ lips before smelling his fingers and although this methodical work has a serious intention behind it, there is a sensuality to the actions he is performing on the body of a woman who, in death, is unable to consent to this. One might also wonder why, if Abberline is privy to this specific piece of information, he never takes care to share this with Mary, advising her to warn her friends to steer clear of any man who attempts to seduce them with grapes. 

The use of language to describe the women, usually by males who hold power and authority includes ‘bangtail’, ‘pinch pricks’, and ‘whores’. Sergeant Godley also refers to Mary at one point as a ‘red-haired jezebel who makes up stories about men.’ Through the repeated use of such language and terminology the men of FROM HELL continually reinforce the notion that in her status as whore (a status that does not define her as a wholehearted person) Mary is not to be trusted. This stands in opposition to the freedom granted to men who are given free license to make as many incorrect and wild assumptions about women as they wish. 

Mary and her friends attend the funerals of the women who have fallen victim to the ripper; for them, death is not on a newspaper or in a case file, it is incredibly close and threateningly real. As one of the coffins is lowered into the ground it suddenly bursts open, giving the glaring faces another look at the deceased who must endure one final indignity. When approached by the police after the burial, the women immediately mistrust them and refuse to share any information. They remind Abberline that they know about the gang and question why the police are not on top of this. Mary mocks Abberline describing him as a ‘strong, handsome man who should be able to do anything’ while she refers to herself as a ‘cowering weakling who can’t help herself.’ In actual fact, the opposite is true as she is living and working amongst the streets in the vortex of the crimes while Abberline and his officers persist in failing in their duty to catch the ripper and prevent further killings. 

When Abberline encounters the dead bodies at the crime scenes, he covers their eyes with coins featuring another female, the monarch of the time, Queen Victoria. This serves as a stark reminder of how far removed the sovereign’s life is from the women of the streets. Later, we see Victoria (Liz Moscrop) in her palace, she is shown to be living a refined, comfortable life of safety and security unlike the women on the streets whom she shows no concern for. Mary later describes a portrait of Queen Victoria as giving her a ‘fright’ and ‘a feeling that someone has walked over my grave.’ When the identity of the ripper is revealed, the Queens’ only response is that she is grateful to have been informed and wishes to hear nothing more about it, thus diminishing the value of the life of all his victims. 

Meanwhile, we see women being transported in cages to a doomed fate in the workhouse, and sensing she can help, Mary uses her leverage against Abberline to join him in visiting Ann by threatening to go to the press if he does not agree. After their visit is unsuccessful and they are later parted, Abberline foresees Mary’s death but is unable to prevent it from happening. The ripper enters Mary’s house while Abberline runs frantically through the streets of London in an attempt to save her. Arriving too late, he is informed that she is ‘in pieces’ and we watch as Mary’s humble room fills with men who arrive to observe her dead body. To add insult to injury, unbelievably as Abberline learns of Mary’s brutal death he is also rewarded with a promotion, a nod towards the discouraging fact that men can ascend the ranks despite an utter lack of competency.  The film concludes with Abberline’s death (an overdose of opium) which is portrayed as poetic and peaceful with Godley appearing at his side to give him a farewell that was fitting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘goodnight sweet Prince.’ 

FROM HELL presents a world where institutions and the establishment exist to protect men while systematically ignoring and disregarding the welfare and dignity of women. By contrast, the secret society which the men of the film subscribe to ensures that they are protected at all costs, and in belonging to this anointed group, they remain above the law and unanswerable for their crimes. Throughout the film, we see large groups of men gathering around a single woman, highlighting how men view women as specimens and how alone the female sex is in this male-dominated world. Within the discourse of the film, it is disturbingly clear that men are given sanction to be human while the victims of the ripper are branded as nothing more than whores and prostitutes. Despite striving to survive, the women are repeatedly punished and silenced through violence, victimization, and ultimately, death.

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