Guillermo del Toro, the Oscar-winning director behind the last two Hellboy films (the 2004 original and 2008’s financially underwhelming Hellboy II: The Golden Army) is a capital-A artist through and through. Del Toro took Mike Mignola’s comic-book series as a jumping-off point to create a showcase of dazzling practical effects and the lovingly designed creatures and ghouls that have become his trademark. Filtered through his inimitable vision, some fans complained it felt more like a del Toro film than a Hellboy adaptation, but it was also a rare example of a superhero work helmed by a genuine auteur.
Over 10 years later, Hellboy has received the reboot treatment, this time with a smaller budget and an R-rating. When it was announced that filmmaker Neil Marshall — a genre director most known for 2006’s claustrophobic monster flick The Descent — would be replacing del Toro, many were hoping for a brooding, horror-centric take on the source material truer to the spirit of the comics. Marshall may not possess del Toro’s instantly recognizable style, but his hiring was enough to hold out hope for something worthwhile.
Well, it’s safe to say given the brutal critical reception the new Hellboy has received, plenty of people have been sorely let down, and frankly, it’s not unwarranted. Comparing the visual scope of 2019’s Hellboy with the original or its sequel is like comparing a Rembrandt self-portrait to a high-schooler’s poorly lit bathroom selfie; it’s never flattering to place the gorgeous alongside the grotesque. However, if you’re willing to let go of certain (and arguably reasonable) expectations in terms of quality, Hellboy proves to be a deeply weird and morally reprehensible piece of geek trash that will appeal to many –like myself who lack taste.
Let this be a warning to casual moviegoers: Hellboy has problems … a lot of problems. Problems which I’ll be getting into shortly. But perhaps unfortunately, I had a glorious time reveling in its shocking gore and odd grace notes. Its closest sibling might be 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, another idiosyncratic and soulless piece of junk food without any interest outside its own extreme violence. If you’re of the select nerd whose ears perk up from that description, then have at it.
The story is bogged down by enough incomprehensible mythology to require an essay of its own, so to summarize: Hellboy is a human / demon agent for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, which is basically a government-run version of the Ghostbusters. The BPRD is run by Hellboy’s foster father (Ian McShane), who found him during WWII at the site of a supernatural Nazi experiment gone awry. Hellboy embarks on missions across the world to slaughter various evil creatures (vampires, giants, witches, etc.) to keep humanity safe. Of course, it’s all very, very silly and the movie treats it so.
Plotwise, this really isn’t dissimilar from either of the earlier series entries, albeit far more incomprehensible. No, what makes watching Hellboy such an uncanny experience is how nearly every scene is marred by glaring studio meddling. Not since Suicide Squad has a movie so clearly been taken from a director and edited by a random group of studio suits trying to salvage a gleeful piece of garbage into something crowd-pleasing. The needle-drops are even ripped straight from that movie’s playbook, except rather than selecting well-known classic rock staples, we get generic rawk guitars that sound like a Garage Band version of the worst Black Keys song.
This is most evident in the awkward one-liners forced into each painful exchange of dialogue. Almost every punchline is atrocious and delivered when a character is off-screen or their heads are turned away from the audience. As Hellboy walks into a game room filled with the heads of slain giants, he mutters, “And I thought my head was big” while the camera follows him from behind. That caliber of humor is par for the course here, and you would think, given the seemingly unlimited attempts ADR allows, that at least a few jokes would land, but alas …
Equally befuddling is the heavy reliance on CG, which strips away the artistry of del Toro’s films in favor of gore that feels straight out of a cutscene from a Resident Evil game. Fortunately, the (often terrible) special effects during the action sequences add to Hellboy’s lowbrow charm. It’s all staged in sturdy fashion with a refreshing absence of quick edits. The violence here is too nasty and large-scale to call for practical effects: Hordes of the undead are dismembered, crowds of people are torn to shreds by Lovecraftian behemoths, and just about anyone else is killed in every imaginable way. Hands down, this is one of the bloodiest mainstream movies to come out in years.
That isn’t to say Marshall and the effects team don’t offer occasionally compelling visuals. A sequence where Hellboy visits an ancient witch whose favorite snack is stew made from children is rife with horrific imagery. The witch, known as Baba Yaga, is a strikingly sinister creation, with skin stretched over a mangled mouth and jutting shoulder blades. Her mobile house is particularly inspired as well, lurching across an ethereal hellscape on twisted chicken legs.
David Harbour (Stranger Things) does enough with the lead role to differentiate himself from Ron Perlman’s iteration. His make-up job (which jarringly changes throughout early scenes) is rougher-hewn, with pronounced scars across his face and chest. This Hellboy is a bit gruffer and much more vicious than his predecessor. Ian McShane’s character appears to have wandered off the John Wick 3 set at the Lionsgate lot to hang out with Hellboy, and his role is virtually identical to that in his other franchise — there to deliver goofy exposition while looking snazzy in a suit. Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim and Milla Jovovich are given little to do outside getting saddled with some less-than-stellar dialogue.
Hellboy is not successful by traditional standards. In fact, I remain uncertain about whether it achieves what it sets out to do at all. Marshall surely had higher ambitions that were impeded by studio interference, and it’s too bad audiences weren’t allowed to see his final cut. For now, we’ll have to make due with the compromised product, which to me is nonetheless pretty damn fun. I imagine if this was a direct-to-video sequel released in 2011, a cult following would have amassed by now. Hopefully, assuming I’m not alone in my feelings, that still might happen.