October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, John Hurt.
I’m not going to try to write a full synopsis for this movie, because, frankly, I’ve seen it twenty times and I’m still not sure I really understand the plot. If you have seen it, this review will make sense to you. If you haven’t, no synopsis can help you. Trying to explain all the plot threads of Hellboy is not a rabbit hole I want to go down.
The truth of it is, Hellboy’s plot is convoluted, confusing, and ridiculous. Some things will not make sense if you haven’t read the comic it’s based on, and other things will not make a whole lot of sense even if you have. But for a movie like Hellboy, that is all entirely beside the point. There are hellhounds. There are strange and dubious prophecies. There is a cat loving, cigar smoking, big red antihero who is in love with a mentally unstable pyrokenetic. There is the reanimated corpse of Rasputin and there are massive ancient beings frozen in space/another dimension. And all that is wrapped up in a ball of action and tied with a bow of Guillermo Del Toro.
It’s a movie that’s basically an excuse for a ton of action and set pieces, with some really fun special effects and creature designs. But there are a lot of movies that match that description which haven’t garnered the affection that Hellboy has. Underneath all the incomprehensible back story and frenetic, explosive action, underneath the make-up and fight choreography, there’s a serious heart to the story. There are characters and relationships worth caring about and a romance that, while at times problematic, feels earned. A lot of that is owed to the actors and some to the source material (Hellboy has always had a big personality), but Del Toro also excels at bringing unlikely characters to life in a way that makes us fall for them.
Ron Perlman, one of Del Toro’s go-to actors, is excellent and imposing as Hellboy, chewing scenery and smoking cigars. His ability act through layers of make-up and prostheses is impressive as always. He does a good job giving the character insecurities and a brooding darkness without devolving into being tiresome or whiny. He never takes things too seriously, and when Hellboy does start to feel too sorry for himself, the movie calls him out on it instead of indulging his self-pity. Hellboy is sarcastic with tons of swagger, quick with a quip, and a flouter of rules, but has a sensitive side that manages not not be overdone or out of character for a demonic action hero. His quirks, like his love of cats and candy, both humanize him and accentuate his supernatural origins (no human could consume Baby Ruth bars in that quantity). Perlman shades Hellboy’s immaturity with a layer of world-weariness consistent with an outsider who doesn’t age and has to see his friends pass him by.
Selma Blair is perfect as Liz, as she manages to appear fragile and vulnerable without ever seeming weak, which is a difficult trick to pull off. She also does a great job portraying both her own inner conflict about her abilities and her conflict about her relationship with Hellboy. There’s a great sense of history between the two characters, and Myers attempts at romance with Liz only make him seem like a child butting into very adult business. Their relationship has some serious problematic aspects to it – Hellboy is obsessed and stalkerish at times, and it’s implied that Liz has known him since she was a child and grew up with him, although he would been an adult for her whole life. But the movie doesn’t so much absolve their relationship of its troublesome bits as acknowledge that sometimes relationships – especially for outcast superheroes – are fucked up, and we have to do the best we can with them. The messiness of their romance makes it feel more real, even if it’s not a model to follow in one’s own life.
The relationships between Hellboy and Liz and Abe Sapiens as team members who have worked together for a long time, and with Dr. Bruttenholm, who raised them, feel comfortable and genuine, and their grief at Bruttenholm’s death is an emotional touchstone of the movie. Really, aside from the cardboard villains, the only character who feels one dimensional or out of place is Myers. I’m at a loss as to why he’s in this movie. He’s not a character in the comics, his only role is seems to be to provide an audience surrogate, to introduce them to the world of the BPRD. But really, the movie doesn’t need it and the other characters are so well-realized and interesting that he feels not just unnecessary, but downright obstructive to the world Del Toro is trying immerse us in. There’s nothing wrong with him particularly, he’s just uninteresting and superflous.
Hellboy is fun, fantasical action from start to finish, with compelling characters. Provided you don’t feel the need to understand everything that happens and don’t mind villains with vague motivations and outsize ambitions – some of which are just an excuse for cool effects – you’ll love Hellboy. We all hope and pray that Del Toro will get back to make a third one before it’s too late, even the second outing didn’t quite live up to this one.
Quality: 7 baffled Mannings out 10 – As with many Del Toro films, plot loses out to style, but the style’s so good you don’t care too much.
Enjoyability: 9 fiery Lizzes out 10 – Good characters, great setting, snappy dialogue, and tons of action. A popcorn movie that will actually make you feel something.