122 min., 2004
Written by Guillermo Del Toro/Peter Briggs
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
My rating: ★★★
Someday he’ll be a real hellboy.
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Hellboy…Hellboy, Hellboy, Hellboy. Well that’s four words down on my deadline, but I guess I should talk about the 2004 film of the same name, based on the Dark Horse comic written and, sometimes drawn, by Mike Mignola.
Now, as this is my first time writing for Forced Viewing I feel compelled to ask and answer this question first: Is this a horror movie?
It’s an action movie with horror elements in it, but it never quite gets around to shocking or scaring you the way some horror movies and Farrelly brother comedies do.
The story revolves around a demon summoned to Earth during the close of WWII by the mad Russian prophet Rasputin on behalf of the Nazis. He’s adopted by an English occult expert and then pressed into service by the Americans as their secret weapon against occult threats. Despite the international flavor of the set up, the majority of the film takes place in the sewers of New York, save the last third which occurs in the catacombs of a German cemetery.
Hellboy, or Red, played by the vastly under-appreciated Ron Perlman, leads teams for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Wiping out monsters along side fish-man Abe Sapien (Del Toro favorite Doug Jones) and pyro-kinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair, who plays the character with all the vigor of someone who hasn’t slept in two weeks. Blair never quite manages to emote beyond “dull sarcasm”).
Rasputin returns to use Hellboy’s giant stone hand to unlock the prison containing his masters: the Lovecraft inspired dragons: The Ogdru Jahad. Wait! So, Hellboy, who is clearly based on Judea-Christian idea of a devil, is the key to unlocking a supreme evil in the mold of Lovecraftian legends!?! There’s some major blending of mythologies here–something Mignola is a master off in his comics, but it never quite gels as well here.
Nor do Mignola and Del Toro’s greater aesthetics gel well with the concessions one has to make in order to make the film palpable for a global audience unfamiliar with the comic. Though these compromises are far more pronounced in the film’s sequel, Hellboy: The Golden Army, which alternates between brilliant and Three’s Company. This film sets it all up though. There’s a love triangle between Liz, Hellboy and the bland Agent Myers. Hellboy’s adopted father is dying, but Hellboy doesn’t know.
Hellboy’s boss (Jeffrey Tambor, relishing the part) Is a jerk. The world at large doesn’t know Hellboy exists. All concessions for the movie audience, because otherwise it would just be the big red guy punching monsters for an hour and a half, and admittedly, that could get a little old and one would wonder why is no one running from the 7ft tall demon with a giant stone hand? In the comics everyone just accepts Hellboy on sight. Never any pointing or screaming by the public. He’s just there and they’re fine with it.
It’s easy to look at Hellboy in two ways: It’s either a failure to translate Mignola’s dynamics to the big screen or a success that managed to adapt his obscure comic book to a larger audience. Either way, I will admit that Del Toro manages to blend CGI with practical effects and make-up with a deft hand.
John Hurt, playing Prof. Bruttenholm, is the film’s acting high point, making me believe that a comic book relationship that was never much more than mentor & protégé is truly father & son.
However the villains never quite feel threatening to me and the main CGI monster Sammael is called “the Seed of Destruction,” which was the name of the Hellboy’s first book and actually refers to him. As a comic book fan I just found that careless and annoying. I encourage anyone reading this to check out Mignola’s Hellboy works and its spin-off series BPRD which some might say is an even better comic than the one that spawned it.
As for the movie itself?
Hellboy is just okay. It’s an action film, that gives you glimpses of what it could have been had it not been mainstreamed to sell it to an audience. But I think we all know that if they hadn’t done that it probably would never have been made. And there’s never a guarantee that what works in a comic book would work in a film if a direct translation was made.
Check out The Golden Army though. Someday someone will do a “Phantom Edit” on it and edit out the Liz/Hellboy relationship (tricky with the Angel of Death scene I know, but I think it can be done) and we’ll have the Hellboy film we truly deserve.