WARNING: This review contain spoilers!
“What is this that stands before me
Figure in black, which points at me
Turn around quick and start to run
Find out I’m the chosen one
-Black Sabbath in the song Black Sabbath, written by Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Terry “Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward
The comic book character Hellboy was originally created when comic artist Mike Mignola was attending a comic book convention and he was asked to contribute an original drawing for the convention’s program booklet. Mignola, who at the time was mostly drawing superheroes, decided to create something new and unusual that would better reflect his own interests. He drew a large troll-like demon and as he was designing its large outlandish belt, Mignola scrawled the name Hellboy on the belt buckle and the rest is, as they say, history. The Hellboy character would evolve over time and would end up looking like no other character in comics since Jack Kirby’s monsters in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
As a comic book, Hellboy would be inspired by Mignola’s love of Grimm’s fairy tales, Gothic horror stories, 1940s detective fiction, pulp adventure magazines like Doc Savage, and the early Stan Lee / Jack Kirby monster comics published by Marvel. Mignola had always wanted to write in addition to doing artwork and Hellboy gave him that opportunity. Combining his offbeat and frequently morbid sense of humor with as many pulp clichés as he could conceive of, Mignola set out to create a contemporary mythology of his own and the result surprised even him. Published by Dark Horse Comics, Hellboy became a cult sensation in a number of limited run series before earning his own regular title. As his popularity increased, it became obvious that a Hellboy film adaptation was inevitable.
It would be many years before the highly-anticipated Hellboy movie would hit theatre screens, but in the year 2004 comic book fans got what they wanted: Big Red in flesh in blood.
The film's screenplay was written by the visionary Mexican director Guillermo del Toro and was partly based on the Seeds of Destruction graphic novel. Guillermo had been a longtime fan of Mignola’s distinctive writing and artwork. He even had Mignola serve as a conceptual designer on his last film, the comic book-inspired sequel Blade II. Their collaboration on Hellboy would prove to be more ambitious visually and the film itself wound end up being more consistent and more polished than that previous film.
Although Guillermo had no intention of doing a word-for-word, scene-for-scene translation from the comic book pages to the screen, he managed to capture much of the essence of Mike Mignola’s characters while adding his own oddball ideas. The two worked closely together to ensure that the film would be a fair representation of the comic book, while at the same time allowing it to branch out and develop into its own entity. Naturally, the two creative geniuses didn’t always see eye to eye, but they generally got along brilliantly and, in addition to becoming fast friends, they have both stated that they’d love to collaborate on future film projects. When it came time to determine who would play Hellboy in the live-action film, they both had the exact same reaction: “Only Ron Perlman can do this.”
“Now is the time, the moon is in alignment
With the unknown zodiac, the untold sign
Of the fiery maniac within each breast
Awaits a stirring, iridescent whirring
Of a six-eyed god, whose wings beat
In a time so odd, so very odd
And we’re all lost, all of us blessedly lost”
-Blue Öyster Cult in the song The Old Gods Return, written by John Shirley, Eric Bloom, and Donald Roeser
The story opens in 1944, on an unnamed island off the coast off Scotland, where the mad Russian occultist Grigori Rasputin is combining black magicks with technology in order to open a portal to another dimension. His evil goal is to use his influence within the inner circle of the Nazis to further his own plans to destroy the Earth, which he sees as being a place of compromise, corruption, and weakness, and after the Earth’s destruction and the release of the monstrous Ogdru Jahad, he will become master of a new Earth that shall be made in the designs of chaos. Joining Rasputin on his devious mission are two vile Nazi disciples: Ilsa and Kroenen. Ilsa’s origins are unknown, but her perverse love and devotion to Rasputin is notorious. Kroenen was once a brilliant artist of great intellect, but he nurtured a sadistic addiction to surgery and turned himself into a deformed freak. Together, these two serve Rasputin’s will and help him to usher in the apocalypse. But there is an opposition.
At the suggestion of occult expert Professor Trevor Broom, President Franklin Roosevelt formed a secret organization known as the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, or B.P.R.D. for short, which is to act as a counter-intelligence agency in the battle against Rasputin, Hitler, and his occultist allies. When a small group of U.S. soldiers accompany Broom to Scotland, they are shocked to find Rasputin in the midst of a group of Nazi scientists, performing some bizarre ritual. The portal opens, but the soldiers quick decisive action destroys the portal generator and traps Rasputin in a netherworld limbo. Kroenen disappears along with Ilsa. But something has come through the portal, something red and with horns and a tail. Broom adopts the baby demon, which he refers to as his son and that the soldiers dub Hellboy.
Over fifty years later, Hellboy has become an urban legend and no one in the outside world has any idea that he’s a special agent that fights the forces of evil with his inhuman strength and near invulnerability. Hellboy’s other allies include the psychic amphibian-humanoid named Abe Sapien and a pyrokinetic woman named Liz Sherman, whom Hellboy is hopelessly in love with.
When the B.P.R.D. is asked to find someone to monitor Hellboy’s antics, which B.P.R.D. head Tom Manning feels are out of control, a young and naïve agent named John Myers is brought in. Hellboy immediately resents Myers, in part because Myers quickly befriends Liz. When Hellboy and Abe Sapien are called in to investigate a break-in at a museum, they uncover a grand conspiracy: Rasputin has returned and once again is planning to bring the Ogdru Jahad to destroy Earth. However, a new challenge lies in their way of stopping him. Rasputin has released Sammael, the Hound of Resurrection, a near undefeatable foe. After a great number of battles with Sammael, who every time he is destroyed gives birth to two more of himself, Hellboy is forced to unite with Myers in spite of their differences. But just when the B.P.R.D. seems to have a handle on the situation, Sammael kills two B.P.R.D. agents and injures Abe. Then, while Hellboy is out spying on Liz and Agent Myers, fearing that they may be developing a romance, Kroenen kills Professor Broom on Rasputin’s orders and they manage to escape unhindered.
After Broom’s death, Hellboy, Liz, and Agent Myers are forced to confront Rasputin and his scheming. They also will have to deal with Tom Manning who feels that the entire B.P.R.D. is a mere freak show and more of a nuisance than anything else.
Hellboy and his allies travel to Russia and plan to infiltrate Rasputin’s secret lair where he operates from. While there, the group is separated and Hellboy is left, reluctantly, to protect Manning in the middle of a booby-trapped maze of corridors. Liz and Agent Myers search for a way to destroy Sammael and his eggs before he can be reborn.
Meanwhile, Hellboy has destroyed Kroenen and advised Manning to stay in place, so that he can go search for Liz and Myers.
Unfortunately, all goes according to Rasputin’s master plan and Hellboy ends up being trapped and coerced into opening the portal that will unleash the Ogdru Jahad. However, with Liz’ life on the line and all the world at stake, Agent Myers reminds Hellboy that he has a choice and that he doesn’t have to be a pawn of evil simply because he was born a demon. Hellboy then confronts Rasputin and when he mortally wounds him a great squid-like monster erupts from within Rasputin and Hellboy must battle it to save his friends and himself. But can Hellboy protect the world, stop the bad guys, overcome his demonic origins, and still get the girl?
“Love of mine, someday you will die
But I’ll be close behind and I’ll follow you into the dark
No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
Just our hands clasped tight, waiting for the hint of a spark”
-Death Cab for Cutie in the Song I Will Follow You Into the Dark, written by Ben Gibbard
The film’s cast is as close to perfect as it could get. With Guillermo del Toro’s childish enthusiasm and brilliant understanding of visual storytelling, he was able to attract a wide range of actors. In the end, much of the film’s strength can be attributed to the cast, which includes Ron Perlman as Hellboy, Selma Blair as Liz Sherman, John Hurt as Professor Trevor Broom, Jeffrey Tambor as Tom Manning, Rupert Evans as Agent John Myers, Doug Jones as Abe Sapien, Karel Roden as Rasputin, and David Hyde Pierce as the voice of Abe Sapien.
is perfect in his role (I’ve only ever said that in regards to Max Schreck
as Count Orlok in Nosferatu
). He plays Hellboy as a cross between family caveman Fred Flintstone and occult investigator Carl Kolchak, and gives Hellboy the persona of a blue collar working man with a chip on his shoulder… because he’s six-foot-nine, bright red and has a tail and horns (which he files down by the way).
Selma Blair is very good as the emotionally troubled Liz, who suffers from pyrokinesis, which she’s only partially able to control. Her complex relationship with Hellboy is touching and at times humorous, but it never comes off as being trite despite the fact that it’s basically an update on the Beauty and the Beast story. And talk about a Goth boy’s dream come true.
John Hurt, as is expected, gives a convincing and subtle performance as Professor Trevor Broom, who serves as Hellboy’s only father figure. Not only does Hurt look just like his comic book counterpart, but he even manages to capture a sense of the character’s quirky charisma.
Jeffrey Tambor takes delight in playing the conservative elitist snob, Tom Manning, who acts as Head of Operations at the B.P.R.D.. He creates an annoying and prejudiced caricature of bureaucrats as frequently seen on television and does so to a terrific extent, but he manages to imbue the Manning character with a sense of humor and even at times charm.
Rupert Evans, an actor who I’m not at all familiar with, plays the earnest new recruit of the B.P.R.D., Agent John Myers. Evans has a tough challenge since he’s essentially the only “straight guy” in a film full of bizarre characters, but he more than manages.
Renowned costume actor and mime Doug Jones plays Abraham Sapien, known as Abe, and is remarkable in his strange and inhuman physicality. Though Doug Jones does not supply Abe’s voice, he conveys most of the characters emotions through body language and facial expressions, which isn’t easy behind all that makeup.
Karel Roden plays the villainous Grigori Rasputin and though he looks nothing like the historical figure, his enjoyably serpentine and over-the-top portrayal is straight out of a comic book. Though Roden plays Rasputin as a typical villain with an ego and scheming mind, he also endows the character with a sense of honor, albeit twisted, and even adds a touch of tragic romance.
David Hyde Pierce, known for his recurring role on Frasier, provides the voice of Abe Sapien and is quite effective in making the character likeable and does a good job of casting an aura of great intelligence.
“Dead I am the one, exterminating son
Slipping through the trees, strangling the breeze
Dead I am the sky, watching angels cry
As they slowly turn, conquering the worm”
-Rob Zombie in the song Dragula, written by Rob Zombie
While Guillermo del Toro’s visual approach to Hellboy nicely suits the atmosphere of the film, it also closely echoes the artwork of the comics. However, where del Toro falls short is in capturing the zany humor of Mignola’s books. Mignola’s humor is dark and dry, much like that of Edward Gorey, but del Toro adopts a more juvenile slapstick sense of humor that feels more akin to Looney Tunes than Hellboy. Another flaw of the film lies in the action scenes, which all feel the same: Hellboy reluctantly confronts monster, monster picks a fight, Hellboy punches monster repeatedly, monster recovers and throws Hellboy around, and then finally Hellboy defeats it through some means of either setting it on fire or blowing it up.
Some comic book fans complained that del Toro’s take on Hellboy was too sentimental and lamented the fact that in the comic books Hellboy and Broom don’t have a father-son relationship and that Liz and Hellboy were never romantic. Though, Mignola liked these additions that del Toro made, some of his fans were disappointed. Another frequent diatribe was that the film was too predictable and followed all the conventions of an action film, whereas Mignola’s stories are full of unexpected twists and turns, and unforeseeable plot devices.
Still, the film has its strengths. Firstly, as I’ve already mentioned, there’s the superb cast that bring the characters to life. Secondly, the film’s production, wardrobe, and make-up design all beautifully recreate Mignola’s artwork yet at the same time breathing new life into it. Thirdly, the film features wonderfully bizarre score by Marco Beltrami, who combines elements of jazz with Eastern European music and classical motifs to create an appropriately eclectic soundtrack.
All in all, the film is far from perfect and may not be what Hellboy fans had in mind… but at the same time, the film’s superlatives outweigh its flaws and seeing Hellboy in live-action will be just too good to pass up even if you’re not a fan.
“Some people say my love cannot be true
Please believe me, my love, and I’ll show you
I will give you those things you thought unreal
The sun, the moon, the stars all bear my seal”
-Black Sabbath in the song N.I.B., written by Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Terry “Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward