Hellboy is a strange, charming daydream of a nightmare;
picture something like the slithery imagery of an H.P. Lovecraft
story filtered through the goofiness of a cheapo monster flick,
with a pinch of Humphrey Bogart moroseness or maybe a
headlong plunge explains it best.
First the good guys: Who is Hellboy and why should you care? Sit down. Some education is in order. Hellboy is a superhero who is completely red, with a long tail (not forked, though); he wears a large trench coat and eats Baby Ruths and is indestructible and appears to
have two large cans of tuna itching to burst out of his forehead.
He s kind of sweet, too. Those cans are his horns, which he obsessively sands down to fit in with the rest of us. This is
what separates Hellboy from the other superheroes: He may have
the same insecurities of a Peter Parker, he may be awkward with
human relationships like Clark Kent, but he s also self-deprecating
and funny, Dirty Harry with a shrug (and a cigar). His chest has
the appearance of a large red leather ottoman; his gruff cynicism
comes directly from Sgt. Rock.
He works for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, located beneath a gray concrete Louis Kahn-like building in Newark, N.J. He fights evil, or as it s explained: There are things that go bump in the night, and we re the ones who bump back. None of this
is as ridiculous as it may sound.
That is, rather, every superhero s credo in a single line. Ask
yourself how ridiculous SpiderMan, Batman, Superman, Silver
Surfer, or the X-Men (Hellboy s closest kin) would sound if you
hadn t already accepted them as pop icons. Hellboy, though, goes
about his crime fighting differently: He ventures out of his government
lockdown to save the world the way a plumber might accept a house call What else is he gonna do? That s his job.
Hellboy, directed by the generous Mexican stylist Guillermo del Toro, is based not on a DC or Marvel comic but a Dark Horse
comic. Dark Horse, the most influential new comic book publisher
since the days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s, is
not your father s comic book company; but then again, today s
comic books are not your father s comic books. They re uniformly
darker, more sardonic, derivative of the classics, and packed
with more shades of gray. Hellboy is dark but also a lot simpler than
most. What was so charming about Mike Mignola s Hellboy
books, which hit racks about a decade ago, was how he nodded
to X-Men then went further back to another comic book tradition:
the horror comic, best remembered by titles like Tales of the Crypt and Haunt of Fear.
Del Toro, who made the underrated Blade II and the underseen
Mexican ghost story The Devil s Backbone, couldn t be better suited.
He s a pretty sophisticated condenser of all things pop. You
might say he d even call a lot of this absurd trash but proudly,
stitched together with more love than originality. He s pointedly
said Hellboy is made by geeks for geeks. But he s being modest.
As busy as the special effects become in Hellboy, he refuses to let them dictate, or smother the fun. The final battle, for instance, is so slight, it s also a subtle joke about the monotony of superhero battles.
There s a willingness to let big stupid monster costumes look like big stupid monster costumes. My favorite was a writhing
frog thing that appeared to be wearing a macrame plant hanger
on its head. Del Toro cultivates a little high art and a little low, but
appreciates both, and then just tosses it all into the ring: costumes,
prosthetics, good acting, bad acting, bad accents, special
effects, a love story, poignancy.
He doesn t discriminate. His imagination moves too fast. In
the first 10 minutes alone, we get: the mad monk Rasputin (yes, that
Rasputin), who summons a rift in the time-space continuum that
looks suspiciously like the cover of a Journey record. It s World War II,
and the Nazis are summoning the seven gods of chaos to earth,
though one might have been plenty, thanks. Anyway, it s all on Hitler s
orders, which should be serious, but pay particular notice to those
very Young Frankenstein-ish voltage towers del Toro lingers over long enough to solicit a quick giggle.
Armageddon is going well.
Then the U.S. Army breaks up the party, but not quickly enough to
stop a demon from sneaking through the portal. He s cute,
small, with the distinct tint of a July sunburn and found first by
the Allies, and raised to fight monsters for America at the FDRcreated
BPRD. Which, incidentally, makes Hellboy a genuine poster
child for family values advocates: I mean, clearly the quality of
one s household matters. Imagine what Hellboy might have
grown up to be if he d been raised by Hitler and not Uncle Sam.
Wait, there s more: The story picks up 60 years after Hellboy s
arrival, to find him buff and gruff.
His best friend is a telekinetic fish man named Abe (voiced by
David Hyde Pierce). There s also the torso of a corpse that speaks
Russian; a human sidekick (Rupert Evans); a government
bureaucrat ( Jeffrey Tambor); Hellboy sightings handled with
the cheesy thrill of a National Enquirer cover; piles of pancakes; and a set of giant tentacles from space that threaten to destroy mankind. What they were attached to, I couldn't really say.
As disparate as it all feels, Hellboy is held together, with modesty and wit, by Ron Perlman, who played the beast on TV's Beauty and the Beast. Beneath layers and layers of makeup, he gives Hellboy, and the film, a lonely weariness and humanity missing from superhero boggles like Daredevil and even ambitious curios like Hulk.
Hellboy is in love with Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a fellow freak and BPRD member with an explosive personality. He's indestructible. She's combustible. She's also human, and their unrequited love gives Hellboy moments of surprisingly naked emotion, especially for a comic book movie. Hellboy tells Liz he would love to get closer. She pulls away. She wants to be normal but she doesn't want to hurt his feelings, and Hellboy reads her face and waves his hand across his face in frustration, and says "I wish I could do something about this."
He's a beauty of a beast.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at:firstname.lastname@example.org