The word `hip', as in cool, derives from the ancient art of opium smoking, in which addicts would sprawl on their sides for days, puffing on hookah pipes in languid drug dens. Lying `on the hip' like this played havoc with their posture, resulting in a distinctive gait that was instantly recognisable to other users.
Interestingly for a Hollywood movie, this is exactly how we find Johnny Depp's Detective Abberline in the Hughes brothers' take on the Ripper legend, a dark, brutal tale of murder and conspiracy that cuts right through to the diseased heart of Britain's age-old class system.
On the one hand, this is simply a re-telling of a classic mystery, told in a traditional suspense-thriller style. Abberline is the down-at-heel Victorian detective brought in to solve the vicious killing of a Whitechapel prostitute, only to discover that this is just the first in a short but grisly series. Though clues are few, they're striking and curious: the remains of a sprig of grapes; coins, meticulously placed; a skill with the knife that suggests professional training. But though this is arguably the work of an intelligent, well-connected man, Abberline's investigations meet a wall of deliberate silence. Someone is being protected...
In another movie, this would be a Dirty Harry-style culture clash, but Abberline is not a maverick and this is no ordinary movie. Directed by the Hughes brothers, who explored black-on-black crime in their hard-hitting debut Menace II Society, From Hell is the ultimate hood movie, using an all-white underclass to illustrate the depressing connection between power and poverty. With this motif as their base, the Hugheses have constructed an atmospheric and ingenious drama that tucks in as much as it can reasonably take from Alan Moore's brilliant original graphic novel, a far more ambitious saga that casts the Ripper as the midwife of a violent, tabloid-obsessed 20th century.
Fans of the book may be disappointed, especially by Heather Graham's cockney Barbie performance, but From Hell is a brave stab at a cult milestone. It's a fascinating reminder of how intriguing studio movies from the '40s and '50s actually were, when directors used genre movies to smuggle in their real and often subversive agendas. Right up to its bleak yet romantic finale - - both a compromise and a brilliant intellectual checkmate - - this film constantly reminds us that all its flaws are imposed by the studio system, with its fear of death, politics and obsession with stars. It's a true auteur movie, perfectly in sync with the brothers' previous output and delivered with a dry, subliminal message. Just think what the Hugheses could do if Hollywood would just give them the money and leave them the hell alone.