Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair
Watch Hellboy online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Google Play
With The Shape of Water swimming into UK cinemas this February, we continue our Guillermo del Toro retrospective, looking back at the director’s career, from the underrated gems available to stream to the lesser-known early works that are not.
“There are things that go bump in the night… We are the ones who bump back.”
It’s hard to know at what point the world really got to know the name Guillermo del Toro. Pan’s Labyrinth, in 2006, is undoubtedly his masterpiece, but the director was knocking on the mainstream door years before then – first, with the uneven Mimic, beset by battles with the studio, then, with Blade II, and, finally, with Hellboy. If Blade II felt like a franchise film more suited to his style, Hellboy was a brightly coloured turning point: a franchise film dictated by it.
It’s testament to how well chosen the film’s material is, because while it’s adapted from Mike Mignola’s comic books, Hellboy feels like del Toro through and through. Based on Seed of Destruction, it’s a movie full of passion for the otherworldly and a sympathy – literally – for the devil, a blockbuster that delights in the dark and celebrates society’s rejects. It’s hard to separate the filmmaker from the hard-working outsider at Hellboy’s heart, something that’s equally true of the guy playing him: Ron Perlman, a longtime del Toro collaborator, is perfect for the red-skinned giant, swaggering through the fantastical scenery with a blue-collar brashness that a bigger name would struggle to capture.
Hellboy, of course, is a demon who snuck through from another dimension, thanks to the experimentations of some over-ambitious Nazis decades ago. He’s part-raised, part-held captive by the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, which hunts down monsters to keep humanity safe. But in Perlman and del Toro’s hands, he’s the most natural thing in the world, a regular guy who just happens to file down his horns every night to look less abnormal, and has a crush on a pyrokinetic firestarter called Liz (Selma Blair).
Perlman is balanced out by Rupert Evans as John Myers, an everyman FBI agent assigned to monitor Hellboy – and it’s testament to how charmingly relatable Big Red is that Myers’ accessible window onto this universe feels out of place. Indeed, John Hurt as the kind, caring Professor Broom is all the grounding the script needs, even with Doug Jones/David Hyde Pierce’s gentle performance as telepathic fish-man Abe Sapien.
Shot with verve and energy, their attempts to thwart the rise of a tentacular hellhound (which multiplies every time it’s killed) are stunningly exciting, as Hellboy throws the drooling dog about a Subway tunnel. But while the visuals and Steampunk production design are impressive, it’s the affection that del Toro has for his band of antiheroes that really makes Hellboy stand out – a fondness for freakiness that outweighs any studio attempts to turn this into something more conventional. Structured around Hellboy’s acceptance of his own identity, caught in a limbo between normal life and strangeness, this origins story feels like an apt metaphor for the whole project.
If the end result is a tad uneven, there’s so much to admire, from Biddy Hodson’s old-fashioned horror bride and her partner, the immortal and brilliantly named Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden), to the fact that one of the villains is a clockwork assassin with blades attached to his arms. Hellboy makes Blade II’s creature designs feel like a warm-up for del Toro. If his imagination never quite blossoms in full, though, this movie opens the portal that let that potential into our cinemas – and paves the way for not only Hellboy II and Pan’s Labyrinth, but also The Shape of Water. Taking his love letter to weirdness and confidently shaping another genre to read it aloud, 2018’s Oscar contender has left everyone knowing del Toro’s name. Before the series is rebooted, Guillermo’s devilishly good and underrated hero deserves the same recognition and respect.
Hellboy is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.
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