In 2004, Guillermo del Toro, not at this point the huge box office draw he’s now become, adapted Mike Mignola’s graphic novel Hellboy: Seed of Destruction. Featuring a cast of non-human (mainly) misfits, Lovecraftian be-tentacled horrors, Nazis, and Russia’s greatest love machine (that’s ra-ra-Rasputin to those of you not familiar with Boney M), it would certainly be a challenge to bring to the screen. Thankfully it was a challenge which del Toro rose to admirably, helped in no small part by partner in crime Ron Perlman.
We begin in 1944. Those pesky Nazis have built an inter-dimensional portal in Scotland. With the help of Rasputin (who ain’t dead), they’re going to free the Ogdru Jahad (inspired by the Great Old Ones of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, they’re massive fishy/snaky beings) to help them defeat the Allies. Obviously Ra-ra has other ideas and is actually looking to kick-start an apocalypse (which he thinks will end in paradise – he’s not so bad). They get it open but are thwarted by a small band of plucky Brits (yay!) who destroy the portal (which also swallows Rasputin), but not before a small, red demon with an oversized stone hand has slipped through it. They call him Hellboy.
Fast forward 60 years and young FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Evans) is transferred to the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) where he meets the adult Hellboy (Perlman) along with Abe Sapien (the amazing Doug Jones, but voiced by David Hyde Pierce (Niles from Frasier) who refused a credit because he didn’t feel he deserved it), an amphibious humanoid who’s both psychic and a fan of rotten eggs. The third member of the team is Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who’s off sick (in a mental hospital) as she tries to protect others from her unpredictable pyrokinetic abilities. A couple of Rasputin’s cronies resurrect him in a European mountain range, and the race is on to defeat him before he can go through with his plan of releasing the Ogdru Jahad, something which Hellboy plays a vital part in.
Selma Blair doesn’t really get to shine as the depressed and mopey firestarter – she’s rather hard to feel sorry for. Especially as she’s got two guys fighting over her – one being our red skinned friend, the other being the young (human) FBI agent. John Hurt is solid as Hellboy’s adopted father Professor Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm although he doesn’t do much more than exposition.
If there’s a problem with this film it’s that there are almost too many goodies. Abe Sapien pretty much disappears halfway through and the always reliable Jeffrey Tambor as BPRD pen pusher Tim Manning is also benched early to make room for the rest of them. And while there’s also a lot of baddies, Rasputin isn’t much more than a pantomime villain in a Ming the Merciless outfit bellowing a lot about immolating the world. His girlfriend Ilsa von Haupstein is slightly pointless and the CGI beasties in the other dimension are just a bit too far away and undefined to feel really threatening. It’s a shame that Karl Ruprecht Kroenen (Ladislav Beran), a clockwork, seemingly un-killable Nazi assassin with sand in his veins, whose rubbery bodysuit and omnipresent gas mask make him genuinely scary, is so underused.
Del Toro had already had a go at a comic book adaptation with Blade II but it’s with Hellboy that he really comes into his own. Less recognisable than Spider-man or Superman to your average man/woman on the street, he created a filmic world which was accessible to both Hellboy-stalwarts and virgins. The key to why this film works is Ron Perlman. More known as a jobbing character actor, he’d already worked with Del Toro on Cronos and Blade II and was also used to the prosthetics (Quest for Fire – Neanderthal; The Name of the Rose – disfigured hunchback; Beauty and the Beast (TV series) – half man, half lion; The Island of Dr Moreau – more half man half beast shenanigans). He takes on the role with obvious glee, chomping on a cigar and shaking his tail. Yet all the while there’s an underlying tone of sadness in his filing down of his horns (it’s actually quite shocking how scary he looks when they briefly grow back at the climax of the film), his unrequited (at least at the start) love for Liz, and his knowledge that his purpose in life may well be to unleash hell on earth. Perlman makes what could’ve been a one-dimensional stone-fisted demon into a multi-layered, sympathetic character with human flaws, foibles and feelings.
All in all it’s a great film – del Toro has managed to bring a completely unhuman character to the screen with both flair, humour and pathos.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
del Toro released the sequel to Hellboy in 2008. As he’d just had a huge commercial and critical success with Pan’s Labyrinth, the budget was upped for Hellboy II. All the principal cast reprised their roles in this new story (written especially for the film), along with new additions including Luke Goss and Anna Walton as the vaguely incestuous yin and yang twins Nuala and Nuada, around whom the story hinges. And Doug Jones got to use his own voice for Abe.
The BPRD is much, much funnier this time around. Standout scenes include a lovesick Abe and Big Red indulging in a drunken pity party and a walk through the Bureau’s headquarters which yields some hilarious background action. Ron Perlman is now fully embodying Hellboy’s conflicted personality and having some real fun with it. His relationship with Liz has developed somewhat making him seem all the more human. But he’s having trouble dealing with the fact that his existence needs to remain a secret from the public. The dilemma for him this time is which side to pick: Should he fight on the side of the humans who see him as a monster? Or join the magical beings whose motivations he disapproves of but with whom he may have the most in common?
Talking of Liz, she’s a lot more likeable this time. She’s come to terms with her powers, is able to control them (mostly) and seems to be looking to the future in her relationship with the red one. There’s a new member of the team this time around in the shape of Johann Krause, a being made entirely of mist, held together by what looks like an old school diving suit. He’s voiced by Family Guy’s Seth Macfarlane, and while I find his vaguely irritating, his German efficiency and misunderstanding of Hellboy’s pisstaking make him a great addition to the BPRD family. And that’s what they feel like this time around; a proper team who’re comfortable with each other’s strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies.
Nuada is the villain (although it’s arguable whether he’s actually evil) who wants to destroy the human race using the mythical Golden Army, a clockwork force who’ve been hidden away due to their ferocious killing power. His sister is torn between her love for her brother and her hatred for what he’s planning to do – commit mass genocide to protect the magical creatures left in the world. There’s an odd, slightly incestuous relationship between Goss and his sister Walton, both looking beautiful with long blonde hair and pale skin. If anything Goss doesn’t have quite enough screen time – he’s just not quite menacing enough as we don’t fully grasp his motivations. It’s a shame that the film doesn’t capitalise on his attempts to convince Hellboy to change sides as it could have made for an interesting conflict.
But, this is a small quibble in a film that provides a feast for the senses. The troll market scene is a triumph – there’s so much to drink in that it needs a second, third or fourth viewing to take it all in. The whole film is more recognisably del Toro than Hellboy – many of the creatures (especially the frighteningly beautiful Angel of Death) would be equally at home in Pan’s Labyrinth. Both Hellboy films could have suffered from an over reliance on CGI – thankfully del Toro’s use of old-fashioned prosthetics with a bit of CG chucked is the perfect mixture. Even the minor characters like Mr Wink, a troll heavy with a clockwork iron fist, are imbued with personality quirks and nuances. And that’s another one of its strengths – although it’s heavily reliant on special effects, they’re so rich in personality that nothing is lost. Like its predecessor, it’s a film with a big, red heart.
Here’s hoping for a third one.