Go Big Red, Or Go Home: A “Hellboy” (2019) Review
A Big budget blockbuster which pays homage to B-movie classic horror and creature features, Hellboy (2019) takes superhero movies in a whole new direction
Like most people who were emotionally invested in the franchise, I was disappointed that the planned Del Toro trilogy was never finished. But I was also ready for something new. It had been a long time since the last movie and I missed seeing Big Red on the big screen. Knowing that Mignola was very involved in the production of this film, I was both confident and hopeful, so despite some less than excellent early reviews, I bought tickets for opening night and off I went.
And honestly? I’m a little confused as to why the film had such a chilly reception. I enjoyed it! This movie is something different, and something special. Bringing together classic practical effects artist Joel Harlow and Dog Soldiers director Neil Marshall I was anticipating 2019’s Hellboy would be a solid creature feature combined with Mignola’s clever ability to darken and re-energise classic myths to create a whole new world. This film delivered exactly that while also being an incredibly ambitious movie which demands the moviegoer’s attention every second. Hellboy draws heavily on some of the best arcs from the comics, introducing and reimagining characters in a fresh, innovative new story. This movie never slows down, never lets up and the stakes keep rising every minute. It covers a lot of ground in a very short amount of time, but it does this exceptionally well. Hellboy, and the version of the world that he operates in, has always been a rich blend of traditional mythology and an imaginative new spin on old legends. To avoid getting bogged down in constructing the reality of this universe, the film offers a whole different approach to world building. Instead of lengthy info dumping segments that explain the backstory, this movie punctuates events that propel the narrative forward with quick, action-packed flashbacks that make the plot easy to follow and gives even newcomers to the franchise everything they need to know.
One of the most important elements of the original Hellboy franchise is something that the reboot remains very faithful to: showcasing the talent of practical effects artists and the actors and puppeteers who are able to bring those incredible creatures to life. There is a lot of larger than life CGI but it supplements rather than overshadows the practical designs and craftsmanship featured in the film. Certainly, the hard work of Academy Award-winning make-up artist Joel Harlow does not go unnoticed, the creature designs for the Nimue, Hellboy, and Gruagach are top tier. Special attention should also be paid to Baga Yaga and actor who played her, contortionist Troy James, who stole the show for me. The focus on creature creation and detail really elevated this movie for me, and it’s something that sets it apart from so many of the other superhero films we see these days. And who doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned monster fight?
Speaking on the effects, my companion for this movie-going experience, a Toronto-based professional special effects make-up artist who came especially to see the creature makeup, was particularly enthralled by the attention paid to the dead bodies in post-massacre scenes, which she described as “especially juicy” and “well-executed” (pun probably intended). The amount of gore in the film could probably be polarizing for some, as the movie does lean-in pretty hard to its violence, wearing its R rating as a badge of honour. But after decades of watching uncomfortable, sexualized torture porn films, I found Hellboy’s bloodbath to be actually refreshing. The violence in this movie is more akin to 90s video game Mortal Kombat blood splattering and traditional oozing horror scares than anything uneasy or stomach turning. While I personally don’t think the movie needed as much carnage as it threw at the audience, by the end I was actually impressed by the inventive new ways people were monster-murdered.
Amidst all this death, and a story that keeps rocketing forward, character motivation and interpersonal dynamics could be very easily lost — and there are a few instances where I think the film might have benefitted from more character exploration, namely the relationship between Hellboy and his father Professor Broom. However, the diverse and energetic cast really hold their own in this fast-paced film. David Harbour brings a lot of emotional weight to his conflicted Hellboy, a character whose struggle to navigate his position between the ‘real’ and ‘fantasy’ worlds reads as an excellent allegory for growing up and pretty literally overcoming your demons. Meanwhile, Sasha Lane (Alice Monaghan), and Daniel Dae Kim (Ben Daimio) flesh out their character’s backstories while sharing great onscreen chemistry. Milla Jovovich’s commanding poise and presence even manage to add some sympathy to the Blood Queen’s villainous motivations. These great performances from the main cast and the monster puppeteers give this movie its soul, whereas Mignola’s vision and Neil Marshall’s ambition bring in a whole lot of a heart. If you love creature features, clever reimaginings of Arthurian legends and killer soundtracks – even if you aren’t familiar with Hellboy – this movie is for you.
In closing, I should mention that my being a long-term fan of the Hellboy world may have something to do with my affection for this reboot. Hellboy has uniquely been a huge part of my life. From 2005 until 2012, Kim Belair (@bagelofdeath) and I devoted a great deal of our free time to writing, photographing and producing a webcomic called Abe and Kroenen. Our comic told the romantic saga of Karl Kroenen and Abe Sapien and was meant as a kind of metacommentary about fandom culture and “shipping” as much as it was about our love for the world created by Mike Mignola that Guillermo Del Toro brought to the screen. To our great shock, both Mignola and Del Toro found our comic and supported it, offering us words of encouragement and opportunities to meet the cast and crew involved in the first two films. While we didn’t know it at the time, this experience turned out to be a hugely influential factor on our futures and careers. Kim Belair, has worked as a scriptwriter for Ubisoft, founded a narrative development company called Sweet Baby Inc and even recently appeared on Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency Podcast. Meanwhile, I am now working through graduate school, focusing on intersections between fandom, cosplay and LGBTQ+ expressions of identity. It’s fascinating how much of who we both are, what we do, and what we love, can be traced back to our experiences with Hellboy.
Film Rating: 7/10 (but also 10/10 because Abe & Kroenen both make an appearance)
About the Author:
Rebecca Stacey is a graduate student at Montreal’s Concordia University. She’s also a long-suffering comic book fan who is particularly interested in gender and diversity in fandom culture.