Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy (2004) is showing on MUBI from May 14 - June 13, 2017 in the United Kingdom.
It is hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of director and source material than Guillermo Del Toro with Hellboy. Mike Mignola’s graphic novel series about a demon put to work by the Feds could have been tailor-made for the Mexican fantasy auteur.
Hellboy’s panels pit brutish monsters against mad visionaries in dank subterranean crypts, drawing on European folklore and making a fetish of clanking machinery, crumbling ruins and otherworldly magic. Mignola’s primary theme is always the past’s unshakeable hold over the present, the dead’s habit of returning to haunt the living. All of the above are the sort of gothic tropes that have recurred again and again in some form or other throughout Del Toro’s filmography too, from Cronos (1993) to Crimson Peak (2015) by way of The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
For the uninitiated, Hellboy is a devil-child summoned to Earth by a team of Nazi occultists—members of the Thule Society led by immortal Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin to tip the balance of the Second World War in the Third Reich’s favor. Interrupted at the completion of the necessary rite on a remote island off the north coast of Scotland by Allied troops, the ringleaders escape but the Satanic being they have conjured falls into the hands of Professor Bruttenholm, who raises Hellboy as his own son within the confines of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). Fifty years later, Hellboy has grown into a cigar-chomping tough guy and operates alongside aquatic intellectual Abe Sapian and pyrokinetic Liz Sherman at the service of the U.S. government, dispatched to investigate supernatural phenomena and the resurrection of ancient evils across the known world and beyond.
Del Toro’s first Hellboy film (2004) nominally adapts Mignola’s 1994 comic Seed of Destruction but, in reality, retains only its prologue, denouement, and amphibious frog beasts. Del Toro jettisons the story’s Cavendish Hall scenes in favor of fleshing out the home life of its title character, cooped up within the bowels of BPRD headquarters. Introducing a new character, FBI academy graduate John Myers (Rupert Evans), to serve as audience surrogate, Del Toro shows us the BPRD through this greenhorn’s eyes. We meet Hellboy (Ron Perlman) only when Agent Myers does, encountering Big Red pumping iron as Tom Waits’s rasping ‘Heartattack and Vine’ plays on the soundtrack (that voice a brilliant clue to HB’s blue collar, working stiff personality).
As James Gunn is presently demonstrating to the suits at Marvel with his uproarious Guardians of the Galaxy films (2014, 2017), the secret to a great blockbuster is having the courage of your convictions when it comes to investing in characterization. Perlman’s Hellboy may affect the trench coat and hard-boiled manner of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer but deep down he’s as petulant as a schoolboy and harbors “a thing for cats.” Protective towards his friends, he’s also deeply insecure about his status as a social freak—filing down his horns in a futile bid “to fit in”—and tormented by his love for vulnerable goth Liz (Selma Blair), growing jealous of Agent Myers’s burgeoning relationship with her. Perlman is ideally cast and Del Toro gives his star the space to truly inhabit the role, no easy feat from beneath layers of thick red make-up and uncomfortable prosthetics.
Unlike most superhero origin stories, Hellboy proves to be about defying, denying, and thwarting your potential, rather than realizing it. Hellboy’s Right Hand of Doom is the key that will unlock the door to another dimension, that through which Rasputin hopes to beckon the Ogdru Jahad, a Lovercraftian tentacular entity bent on global annihilation. Hellboy therefore must resist his true self to save the world, torn between the human instincts Professor Bruttenholm (the late John Hurt) has nurtured within him and his apparent destiny, to reign in Hell as an instrument of cosmic evil. Perlman conveys this rumbling conflict at the heart of HB as adeptly as he embodies the demon’s brawling physicality. His performance elevates the whole undertaking.
Del Toro meanwhile translates Mignola’s starkly illustrated pages to the screen with total ease. Faithfully recreating the Nazis’ Project Ragna Rok summoning on Tarmagent Island from Seed of Destruction, Del Toro thereafter allows himself the freedom to add his own flourishes. Giving Obersturmbannführer Kroenen (Ladislav Beran) a clockwork heart, for instance, is quintessential Del Toro. The Mexican meanwhile brings together a variety of influences to shape his aesthetic: from the gloomy subway chases of film noir to the occult horrors of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983) and Hellraiser (1987), with a pinch of Predator (1987) and The X-Files (1993-) thrown in for good measure.
Despite having dispensed with much of Seed of Destruction’s core plot, Del Toro and co-writer Peter Briggs do find room to include a nod to another Hellboy short story, ‘The Corpse,’ published in the 1998 collection The Chained Coffin. Landing in Russia in pursuit of Rasputin and Kroenen, the BPRD team led by Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) are at a loss to locate the mausoleum where the former is supposedly buried. Hellboy tears a talking cadaver from the grave and hauls him around on his shoulder, taking directions. A deft inclusion, the episode is typical of Del Toro’s confident but not excessively reverent engagement with his sources. “The movie is its own creature,” he has said. “It’s a jazz riff on the comic.”
Following his international success with Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro returned to the saga in 2008 for Hellboy II: The Golden Army, an equally inventive expansion of the underworld conjured on the page by Mignola. Rumours of a third film have circulated ever since, with the director only recently taking to Twitter to confirm the project’s total collapse, only for Mignola himself to break the news on Facebook that Hellboy would ride again. A reboot provisionally titled, Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen, is about to commence production, with Neil Marshall (best known for The Descent, 2005) behind the camera and David Harbour of Stranger Things donning the red latex.
Del Toro’s Hellboy films offered a uniquely sinister, subversive and often very moving spin on the superhero genre. Both were superbly realized exercises in worldbuilding with something highly unusual to say in a market otherwise grossly overpopulated with dunderheaded comics properties depicting black-and-white morality and preaching individual responsibility. Let’s hope Marshall succeeds in waking the devil once more.