Jack the Ripper's lair moves 600 miles east for Hollywood thriller

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The Independent Culture

Cobbled streets, swirling fog and gin-soaked prostitutes: even the most eagle-eyed movie buff might assume that this was the East End of London, dressed up to evoke the Victorian era.

But this re-creation of the terraced alleyways of Whitechapel – the killing ground of Jack the Ripper – was filmed 600 miles to the east, in a field outside Prague.

From Hell, starring Johnny Depp, Heather Graham and Robbie Coltrane, was made in the Czech Republic after film makers decided that the odds of a 1970s bank building sneaking into scenes depicting 19th-century London were simply too high. Most of the east London back streets frequented by the Ripper have disappeared, to be replaced by council blocks and high-rise towers.

So the 20th Century Fox cast and crew decamped to Prague, a city almost undamaged by bombs or other acts of war, which retains beautiful buildings, churches, bridges and streetscapes. Trouble loomed, however, when the Oscar-winning production designer Martin Childs realised that the buildings did not look "remotely English". But by then it was too late to change the location.

So an army of carpenters, bricklayers and electricians descended on a 20-acre site near the city to recreate a section of London from scratch, made of wood and plaster, at a cost of £1m – still half the amount it would have cost had filming taken place in London.

The team of Czech craftsmen made terrace upon terrace of houses in five main streets as well as many alleyways and squares. They also built a replica of Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church in Spitalfields. Mr Childs said: "It would have been financially impossible to do [in London] what we did there because of the costs."

Depp, who stars as Inspector Fred Abberline, the man assigned to catch the Ripper, spent two hours walking around east London to research his role, unnoticed by fans. The 37-year-old, who lives in Paris with his wife, Vanessa Paradis, and his daughter, has said of the film: "What a trip! It's based on a Jack the Ripper comic and the script is amazing. Shooting it was a lot of fun, although we were in Prague, which was very lonely for me."

From Hell is due for release in Britain in February and is based on the book of the same name. It is inspired by a letter from Jack the Ripper jeering at the authorities for their failure to capture him after four women had been murdered. Sent in October 1888, it reads: "From hell. Mr Lusk. Sir I send you half the Kidne I took from one woman prasarved it for you. tother piece I fried and ate it was very nice ... signed Catche me when you can Mister Lusk."

Albert Hughes, who directed the film with his brother Allen, said: "This is a ghetto story. It concerns poverty, violence and corruption."

There is also an obligatory romantic sub-plot. During Abberline's investigation, the inspector, who has drug and marriage problems, falls for Graham's character, Mary Kelly, the proverbial "tart with a heart" who finds herself on the Ripper's hit list.

Coltrane plays the role of Sergeant Peter Godfrey, Abberline's closest colleague. Ian Richardson plays the Met Police Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, who is forced to resign over the failure of the police to catch the killer, and Ian Holm playsSir William Gull, a physician to the Royal Family.

Jack the Ripper's case has remained one of the greatest unsolved English crimes.