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Hellboy: Mark's Take

01/05/2004. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy Hellboy in the USA - or Buy Hellboy in the UK

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Mike Mignola's comic book character Hellboy comes to the screen in high visual style but none too coherently. Our Mark considers that Guillermo del Toro does a better job directing than adapting this story from graphic novel to screen.

Capsule: This is a film that is sullen and dark, and those are its good points. The grim humor is ironically enjoyable and makes this film worth seeing. But neither del Toro nor Mignola knows who Hellboy should be.

The biggest problem with HELLBOY is that Guillermo del Toro's direction is wasted on Guillermo del Toro's (and Peter Briggs's) script. The adaptation is visually very nice. Its images very well match the story's very dark tone and the artwork in the comic book. The problem is that while we know Hellboy is in a mammoth fight, we never have much of an idea of what Hellboy's powers are.

I don't think we really know what Hellboy's goals are either. And we certainly do not know what constitutes "winning" in his fight. In THE GUNS OF NAVARONE the goal is to destroy the guns. In GOLDFINGER it is to kill Goldfinger. Hellboy is called into a conflict and I didn't know what would end it.

If he kills the monster, is that enough? If he kills the villain, is that sufficient? If a good guy is killed does he stay dead? It is like an American watching a curling match. You can get a rough idea of whether it is going well, but that is about all. In the end Hellboy wins because the evil side stops spawning new threats. Come to think of it, perhaps an ill-defined struggle is really a lot like what happens in the real world.

It seems that in 1944 the Nazis were once again fooling around trying to turn the mythic supernatural into a weapon. This time there is no Indiana Jones to stop them. They open a large portal to a big, evil space-going whatsis. Think of it as an interstellar version of H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu.

But the portal is also open to hell and through it comes something not expected by anyone. It is a little baby demon from hell, still young and innocent and very impressionable. The American military (did I mention that they were on hand to blow up the Nazis and their portal?) capture the baby and raise him as their own weapon.

Flash-forward to the present and Hellboy (now played by Ron Perlman, veteran of del Toro's CRONOS) is big and red and smokes cigars. He has sliced off the two huge ram's horns growing out of his forehead so from a distance he just looks like he is wearing goggles. (That was my impression when I first saw the comic book and Guillermo del Toro had the same reaction.) Hellboy is needed to stop an invasion of a very Lovecraftian tentacled monster.

This is the kind of thing that when it dies, two take its place. Hellboy has a sidekick, Abe (Doug Jones) who is sort of a fish-man. (I kept asking myself why the fish-man looked so familiar. I had seen a very similar race depicted in the 1973 French animated film FANTASTIC PLANET.) The other major figure in Hellboy's life is Professor Trevor 'Broom' Bruttenholm (John Hurt, as always a joy to see on the screen). Broom has raised Hellboy and is the father figure in his life.

The problem with this script is that while it has some nice ideas, borrowed from the comic book, and a nice visual style, the writing is really not very good. The story adds just about nothing to the standard good-guy-going-after-bad-guy plot. The writers have not thought out the implications of scenes. Like Bigfoot, Hellboy is supposed to be just a legend, the subject of a few fuzzy photographs. Yet hundreds of people see him in big spectacular, destructive (not to say ultimately boring) fights like one shown in the subway.

Hellboy should be an interesting character torn between positive and demonic impulses. Instead he is basically just one more wise-cracking superhero. Fighting a monster he will make a comment like "no tongues on the second date." That is a joke from popular culture, not from the mind of a demon from hell. I don't think that del Toro had a clue who Hellboy is or should be. I will take that a step further. After reading two "Hellboy" comic books I don't think that Mignola has a clue who Hellboy is or should be.

Both Mignola and del Toro have a good feel for the visual atmosphere, but neither shows much interest in looking inside the mind of a Hellboy. Such a character would be tormented and revolted by unspeakable memories of what it was like in Hell in half of his personality. The other half of his personality would be telling him that what he remembers of Hell is really the way things ought to be. What he has seen of Earth would be pitted against his demonic instincts. These stories would have resonance and they would have allegorical meaning. Instead we have just another sardonic superhero. It is such a waste.

As it happens I would call Guillermo del Toro one of the two greatest horror film directors alive. (Kiyoshi Kurosawa is the other.) His last two films have been disappointing mixtures of the horror and super-hero genres. (BLADE II is the other.) But for these two films the horror has been compromised and is much less effective.

And there is not much new to do in the superhero genre. My advice to del Toro would be to go back to making those wonderfully inventive horror films and leave superheroes alone for a while until he gets some fresh new ideas.

I rate HELLBOY a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2004 Mark R. Leeper

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