Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hellboy

The success of X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) opened the door for a new wave of comic book adaptations. In the past, studios have played it safe and only green-lighted adaptations of mainstream comic books with large followings. However, this changed with adaptations of independent fare like Ghost World (2000), American Splendor (2003), and with Hellboy (2004). Based on Mike Mignola’s comic book of the same name, the title has a dedicated cult following at best so it was a pleasant surprise to see a major studio take a big budget gamble with it.

October 1944. The Nazis have begun mixing science with black magic in a desperate attempt to regain the advantage in World War II. The seemingly invincible Russian, Rasputin (Karel Roden) has teamed up with the Germans and plans to open a portal to another dimension and bring about an apocalypse. However, American troops arrive and disrupt the procedure just in time. In the process, something comes through: a red-skinned demon baby that the soldiers adopt and call Hellboy.

With the World War II prologue, director Guillermo del Toro does two important things: he vividly introduces this colorful world and the characters that inhabit it by creating just the right moody atmosphere and with detailed production design and excellent special effects. Secondly, Del Toro establishes the film’s mythology and what exactly is at stake through a clever mix of science fiction and the supernatural. He does this via an exciting action sequence as a young Dr. Broom and U.S. soldiers confront Rasputin and the Nazis.

Present day. Rasputin has been resurrected and continues his plans to summon destructive supernatural forces that will result in the end of the world. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) has matured (sort of) and now works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) in New Jersey — under the guise of a waste management company (just like Tony Soprano). Along with Abe Sapien (Doug Jones with an uncredited David Hyde Pierce doing the voice), an amphibious humanoid (“the fish guy” as a guard puts it), firestarter Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), and the token “normal guy,” John Myers (Rupert Evans), Hellboy tracks down Rasputin and tries to prevent him from fulfilling his nefarious goals.

Del Toro, a die-hard comic book fan and self-described film geek, shoots the action sequences much like he did in Blade II (2002), with crazy camera angles and fantastically choreographed fights. Case in point, Hellboy’s extended tussle with Sammael (Brian Steele). It’s like Del Toro took panels right out Mignola’s comic book and made them move but with the same kind of explosive energy that made Jack Kirby’s art so exciting. Del Toro also has incredible production design at his disposal to create a fully realized world rich in detail and drenched in atmosphere. He is heavily influenced by Italian horror films and not only references Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) but also the saturated primary color scheme of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) to name just a couple of examples. This is a great looking film, from the warm colors and ornate architecture of the library where Abe Sapien resides, to the darker, colder colors of Rasputin’s mausoleum in Moscow.

Del Toro was shooting Mimic (1997) and discovered the Hellboy comic book but never thought that it could be made in Hollywood and if it did they would ruin it. He heard that it was going to be adapted into a film at Universal Pictures and started writing a screenplay in 1997. He met Mike Mignola when they worked together on Blade II which they used as their “rehearsal” for Hellboy. They found out that they read the same comic books and pulp and classic gothic horror novels. With Hellboy, Del Toro wanted to make a self-contained film, “almost a fairy tale, a fable.” His original pitch to executives at Sony-based Revolution Studios was that both The Mask (1994) and Men in Black (1997) were comic books that they were not familiar with and yet went on to become extremely successful films. He told them that the same thing could happen with Hellboy. In April 2002, Del Toro’s film was given the green-light at a budget of $60 million.


Del Toro first saw Ron Perlman in Quest for Fire (1982) and then The Name of the Rose (1986) and was very impressed with his acting, so much so that he ended up casting the actor in his first film Cronos (1994). Del Toro initially wanted him to play Hellboy but Vin Diesel was a rising star at the time and so the director approached him instead for the role. However, with the move from Universal to Revolution, Diesel dropped out of the picture and Perlman was in. Early on, if the actor didn’t work out, Del Toro thought about making Hellboy a mixture of puppet and computer graphics. He talked to James Cameron who warned him that if he went that route he would lose the love story. Del Toro wisely decided to stick with Perlman.

Perlman is perfectly cast as the cigar smoking, two-fisted action hero who eats Baby Ruth candy bars and loves cats. He does a great job of capturing Hellboy’s sarcastic, wise-cracking nature. Perlman gets to utter cool one-liners and looks fantastic in his make-up (thanks to legendary makeup artist Rick Baker). Often, what makes it to the film rarely resembles what was drawn in the comic book. Not the case here — Perlman IS Hellboy. With this role, he firmly established himself as one of the cult film icons of the new millennium (much like Bruce Campbell was in the 1990’s). Perlman has got the drop-dead cool action hero shtick down cold. With his hulking, imposing physique, he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger with brains and irony.

Del Toro cast Selma Blair because he always saw a “haunting quality in her eyes and in her look. Sort of a doomed, gothic beauty in her.” He was a fan of The Larry Sanders Show and felt the Jeffrey Tambor had that “smarmy, wannabe bureaucratic presence” that was ideal for Tom Manning. He cast Tambor against type and wanted him to be an “absolute asshole in the beginning, and play it straight.” Del Toro and Mignola created the character of Myers to guide audiences into Hellboy’s world. The director interviewed a lot of young Hollywood actors but many of them were “just too cute and too Calvin Klein beautiful to put in the movie.” He liked Rupert Evans because he had “such an open face, and he had a real innocence about him.” Del Toro saw John Hurt in Love and Death on Long Island (1997) and felt that the actor had “that little air of tragedy about him” that suited Professor Bruttenholm.

Hellboy received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and praised Ron Perlman’s performance as “an actor who is not just playing a superhero, but enjoying it; although he no doubt had to endure hours in makeup every day, he chomps his cigar, twitches his tail and battles his demons with something approaching glee. You can see an actor in the process of making an impossible character really work.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Del Toro, the former art-house creep-meister turned megaplex fantasist, knows just how long to hold a shot of blood oozing through an ornate stone maze or ghouls flying through a ghostly museum so that we feel as if the sets and effects are serving the story rather than the other way around.” In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “What distinguishes Hellboy from the pack and gives it squirmy, ferocious life is the environment that Mr. del Toro creates on screen. The movie is lubricated with a fluid, slimy menace, and the director's love of rotted, desiccated flesh and exposed, traumatized organs adds an engrossing grossness. But a contrasting vulnerability has also been slipped in, a critical addition.” The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman wrote, “A nonstop Ragnarok of teenage crushes and constant squidicide, Hellboy ends on a note of pure romantic ecstasy. One would have to be further removed from adolescence than me to be unmoved by the spectacle of two love-starved paranormals consumed in the blue flambĂ© of their Baked Alaska kiss.”

In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “There's no shortage of slick special effects and rampaging monsters here. Yet what catches the eye and captures the imagination is the lovingly hand-crafted feel of the design, the sensuous swirls etched into Hellboy's torso, the dusty clutter of the professor's office, the queasy algae-green of a locked hospital cell.” Sight and Sound magazine’s Kim Newman wrote, “It may offer a big battle too many, but Hellboy succeeds because it brings the visuals from the page to life with a beating red heart.” One of the rare dissenting opinions came from USA Today’s Claudia Puig who wrote, “Hellboy's special effects don't offer much of anything new, its far-fetched plot leaves a bit to be desired, and there is plenty that flat-out doesn't make sense. Those unfamiliar with the comic book may leave the theater bedeviled and scratching their heads.”

Hellboy is one of those rare comic book movies with depth. It takes time to develop its characters and the relationships between them. There is the touching father-son relationship between Hellboy and Bruttenholm and the romantic love triangle between Hellboy, Myers and Liz. While the film has the requisite slam-bang action sequences, it is not dominated by them. The film is not driven by them but rather by the characters and the story. And this is because Del Toro has strong source material to draw from: Mignola’s comic book, in particular “Seed of Destruction,” which chronicles Hellboy’s origins. Both Del Toro and Mignola’s works are steeped in the gothic and horror genres, in particular the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. The author’s influence is all over this movie as Hellboy trades blows with Cthulhu-inspired creatures that would make ol’ Lovecraft proud. While Del Toro’s film didn’t exactly rack up the kind box office numbers the studio was hoping for, it did prove to be quite popular on home video and eventually spawn an even better sequel in 2008.

9 comments:

  1. As a fan of the Hellboy comics from the “Seeds of Destruction” series on, which the Hellboy film is freely adapted, I was mostly pleased with Del Toro’s first adaptation of it. I was aware of how closely Del Toro and Mignola worked together on the film and yet the Hellboy of the film series is as much a creation of Del Toro as it is Mignola’s.

    Del Toro’s gift as a filmmaker is his ability to distil concepts into distinctive imagery and stamp each of his films with a unique style and ambience all his own. The parts of Hellboy – particularly the opening sequence you mention – are straight out of the comic books, but the storylines and the way they are intermingled, are all Del Toro. My only real beef with the film is Del Toro’s need to introduce a romantic element to the story – in this case, between Hellboy and Liz Sherman. Thematically, their quasi-romance is perfect. Hellboy is the only one who doesn’t fear Liz’s uncontrolled fire abilities, because he is quite literally fireproof. In the comics, this relationship is platonic at best and both characters are far too internal to become involved in this way. I understand why Del Toro added this element – with Mignola’s blessing – but I would have preferred its absence.

    Del Toro’s strengths and weaknesses become even more apparent in the sequel to Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army. If you’re interested, I reviewed the sequel on my blog at this link: http://guardiansofthegenre.blogspot.com/2010/03/freaks-retro-review-hellboy-ii-golden.html

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi J.D.

    I really enjoyed reading your retrospective of Hellboy.

    I'm a big fan of this movie (and of Del Toro, in general). I still get a kick out of the funny, askew touches in the film, such as Hellboy's rescue of a box of kittens during a fight scene.

    And the film's final imagery -- of a kind of perfect moment of love between fire-starter and the fire-resistant -- still gets to me. It's very poetic, in a visual sense.

    I wish all superhero movies had this much depth, this much heart, and such a great sense of humor.

    Excellent review and retrospective...

    best,
    JKM

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great look at this modern classic by Del Toro, J.D. There just soooo much to love about it, including its un-big studio-like comic book sensibilities. This director is a supreme craftsman when it comes to telling this tale. I actually met Mike Mignola at a book fair a couple of years ago. He and Guillermo really work together so damn well. Plus, that cast is picture perfect. I'm so glad many of the same actors went on to do the voice work in the animated features that followed. Thanks for his.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Totally agree with ya, with this one, Del Toro demonstrated that he is the perfect director for making In the Mountains of Madness. I mean, this film just oozes Lovecraftian influences! From those tentacled creatures coming out of the sky, to the last creature that Hellboy fights, this movie was one hundred percent pure Lovecraftian lore.

    But also, we need to remember that Mike Mignolas comic was also this way, so its all connected.

    The make up effects are pitch perfect on this one, and the got Hellboy exactly the way he should have looked on screen.

    Loved this movie, and dont get me started on how much I enjoy the sequel! Great review man!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Del Toro is a director who always impresses me when I read interviews with him in which he elaborates on his influences and ambitions. He's not just a fan of sci-fi, fantasty and horror but he's a scholar as well (his commentary tracks on the Night Gallery Season Two set are outstanding). And yet, his actual movies don't thrill me as much as I want them to. I like them well enough (save for Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy II, which I didn't care for at all) but seldom really love them. For me, Hellboy is an ok movie that never really takes off to a higher level. Great retrospect on it, though, J.D. - it's enough to make me want to give HB another look.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Wonderful read J.D.

    You and I have so much in common and a love for comics is just one of them. I always enjoy your explorations into that world. Great nod to Jack Kirby and a great observation and point.

    mignola's stuff is kind of early-Kirby-esque, not that I'm an expert, but it does have that in spirit.

    I loved the Arnie comparison! Nice!

    Your back story was interesting. I was not aware of those facts. I'm pretty much a huge Ron Perlman fan despite not LOVING Hellboy 1 & 2, but they were solid and he is just amazing as Hellboy!

    Heck I loved him in Enemy At The Gates, Alien Resurrection and Blade II. He's terrific!

    But fantastical pictures they are! Excellent as always.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein:

    Thanks for the lenghty comments! You are so right re: the HELLBOY film being as much Del Toro's creation as Mignola and the sequel is even more of Del Toro's baby.

    I didn't really mind the intro of the romance between Hellboy and Liz. What I felt was holding the film back was the creation of Myers and integrating him into a love triangle between the 3 characters. His character was not very well deveopled and reeked of being an obvious audience surrogate as a way of getting newbies into the film. Thankfully they dropped him in the sequel.

    Thanks to that link to your review of the sequel. I will check it out.


    John Kenneth Muir:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

    I agree that the box of kittens was a nice touch. The little details, as you say, give this film an extra special something. I also love the film's final image - a nice, poetic moment to end on. Very nice.


    le0pard13:

    Thank you! I agree that the cast was excellent. Alto, not crazy about the guy playing Myers but I don't think that's really his fault more so the character itself. Other than that, love this film and all of its weird, wild imagery.


    The Film Connoisseur:

    Yes, I would love to see Del Toro finally realize his full-on Lovecraft film. Ah, maybe some day.

    But it's cool to see him squeezing all kinds Lovecraftian imagery into HELLBOY. It is definitely one of the things that I love about the film.

    Thank you for the compliments and, as always, for stopping by.


    Jeff Allard:

    I enjoy reading Del Toro's reviews and listening to his commentaries for the reasons you mentioned. He is a super smart guy and a fanboy at heart. He doesn't pull any punches and speaks passionately about film, literature, etc.

    Thank you for stopping by and leaving such thoughtful comments.

    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Yeah, we do share that passion for comic books. I really want to write more about comic book movies that I love and may be even comic books if I can find the time.

    Good call on Mignola and the Kirby influence on him. That is so true and I'm glad that Del Toro carried that over into the film.

    Count me as a Ron Perlman as well. I could watch him in almost anything.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I have heard that there is another film coming out of the hellboy series is that true?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Possibly but if so it won't be for some time. I know Del Toro has expressed interest in doing one but he said that he could't wait much longer as Ron Perlman isn't getting any younger. That being said, Del Toro has a full plate of projects in the works so who know? I would love it if they teamed up again for another film.

    ReplyDelete