Following the box office success of Blade II, it wasn’t a surprise when Guillermo del Toro announced his next film would also be a comic book adaptation. At the time, the Dark Horse series Hellboy was hardly as recognizable as DC or Marvel franchises like Batman and The X-Men. But Mike Mignola’s gothic comic about a demon-turned-monster hunter was right up del Toro’s alley—Hellboy was, in fact, a longtime dream project for the Mexican director, and when offered the chance to do the third Blade film or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, he chose Hellboy instead.
The titular hero works for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, or B.P.R.D.: a secret organization tasked with protecting humanity from the things that bump in the night. The irony is that Hellboy (del Toro fave Ron Perlman) himself is a literal monster—or, more accurately, a demon from another dimension that was summoned by the immortal sorcerer Rasputin (Karel Roden) on Hitler’s orders.
(Yeah, this is a story that’s so pulpy it could come in a carton, but it’s also deliciously over-the-top and wildly fun.)
Despite his origins and a prophecy that asserts he’ll bring about the apocalypse, Hellboy—or Big Red, as he’s often called by friends—is really just a working stiff. He loves cats and nachos, files down his devilish horns in an attempt to fit in better, and pines for the pyrokinetic Liz (Selma Blair).
When Rasputin is resurrected by his Nazi ladylove Ilsa, Hellboy and Liz must team up with the fish-man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and new agent John Myers (Rupert Evans) to thwart the prophecy and save the world. You know, the usual.
One of the best things about Mike Mignola’s original comics is wonderfully reinforced in del Toro’s take: that the agents of the B.P.R.D., for all that many of them are technically monsters or have strange and inhuman powers, are just folks who get up every morning to toil at an underappreciated but vital job.
In the movie, they even use a disguised garbage truck to get around town and their base of operations bears a sign reading Squeaky Clean Up Waste Management. While other superheroes have fancy uniforms and are treated like gods, Hellboy and his team are either ignored or viewed as freaks on par with Bigfoot.
Del Toro has frequently said that he has a hard time relating to superheroes. He finds them too virtuous, too sanctified, too flawless. Hellboy, then, is a perfect fit for the director. In the movie, he’s played more as a lovestruck and moody teenager than an outright hero, regardless of his impressive demonic physique.
He’s a loner, an outcast, and a misfit. A working class hero who happens to have red skin, horns, and a tail. His world isn’t glamorous or shiny. Del Toro’s fantastical worlds are never sanitized; like the oldest fairy tales, there’s dirt and shadows aplenty. It’s the grit and grime that often adds such a patina of charm to del Toro’s work—you feel as though these places are real, aged, and inhabited, regardless of how far-fetched or magical they are.
Of all of del Toro’s films, the Hellboys are the ones most marked by his distinctive fingerprints. The settings, the character designs, the story, the conflict, the aesthetics are all purely del Toro. There are tentacled hellbeasts straight out of Lovecraft—and more than a few nods to the Mountains of Madness—and a clockwork assassin with a penchant for extreme body modification. Religious iconography plays a vital role and an emphasis is placed on how a person’s choices influence everything around them.
This is a film that holds firmly to del Toro’s mission statement of providing audiences with “eye protein”; not the more common eye candy, which is shallow and vapid, but a visual feast that manages to be rich with its saturated color palette while also meaningful in a way that lingers long after the end credits.
Each scene is packed with details and yet nothing is thrown on the screen haphazardly. Del Toro knows how to arrange his sets and characters in ways that are laden with significance, and the result is some truly stunning shots: take the moment in the snowy Russian graveyard when Hellboy leans over a coffin to commune with one of the long dead inhabitants. The huge snowflakes fall so slowly they seem frozen in mid-air, and the tableau of a hulking man in a leather duster with red horns leaning over an open coffin, a talisman dangling from a rosary chain, is utterly gorgeous.
For all that this is an over-the-top movie with exaggerated elements, it’s also a story with plenty of heart and a sense of history. You’ve got romance! You’ve got action! You’ve got a touching adoptive family and coming of age arc! You’ve got steampunk aesthetics and Nazis teaming up with Rasputin! You’ve got tentacly body horror! Truly, there’s something here for everyone.
And it makes for a pulpy comic gem that’s fun to watch and rewatch. Unlike other adapts I could mention, Hellboy sizzles rather than fizzles, and is obviously a dedicated labor of love. Anyone watching it could tell that del Toro had a helluva time making it, which translates into a helluva ride for the audience.
It’s high up on my favorites list for a reason—and when I set about introducing newcomers to Guillermo del Toro, I inevitably start with this one. Totally accessible and yet still unique: a perfect description for the artistic filmmaker himself.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.