Near the end of World War II, the Nazis begin to combine German technology with the Occult, attempting to give their leader a supernatural advantage and turn the tide of the war. After Americans manage to thwart the effort, they discover an infant demon with a curious stone hand lurking in the ruins. Sixty years later, the fully-grown creature, dubbed Hellboy (Ron Perlman) by his rescuers, is the cornerstone of a government-funded project to research and defend against everything that goes bump in the night.
Talk about a tough sell: a team of monster-fighting supernatural beings led by a creature that looks like the devil himself, but he’s really a good guy! If it weren’t for creator Mike Mignola’s attention to detail in writing and designing such human-thinking characters dealing with their extraordinary circumstances, the fan base for Hellboy might not even exist. Fortunately it does, and years of rich work and creativity have gone into creating a superhero movie that looks and feels almost identical to its source inspiration.
There will be plenty of comparisons of this film to its comic book roots, but that isn’t only because the source material was originally a Dark Horse comic. With a television show, it is assumed that the premise sucked you in and the producer just has to get you to watch the next episode, periodically luring wayward viewers back with an event or two-parter. In film, producers are just happy if they can convince you to buy a ticket, because opening night these days may be the film’s only shot at millions or a fast release on DVD to recoup losses.
Comic books have a different problem: readers can stop turning pages at anytime. Films like X-men and Spider-Man have done well capturing the look and feel of comic book characters and story, while Hulk took after Creepshow by actually showing the page borders. What really ignites a comic book, however, is that every page must make the reader turn to the next; each scene must be memorable unto itself, building in layers to become part of the whole. Amazingly, that’s what Hellboy has been crafted into: a cinematic page-turner that reinvests the viewer with every scene.
The cast is pitch perfect as well. Ron Perlman IS Hellboy, and it’s great to see someone get the meaty acting part because of his talent rather than just his willingness to undergo hours of makeup and prosthetics. Selma Blair plays Liz Sherman, a tortured (or is that torchered?) pyrokinetic that’s a long way from many roles she’s remembered for. Doug Jones plays “Abe” Sapien, but everyone will recognize David Hyde Pierce supplying the voice. Look for Jeffrey Tambor, Rupert Evans, John Hurt, and Karel Roden playing their parts as well, many not exactly doing what you’ve seen them do before (okay, John Hurt’s the mentor again, but he’s so GOOD at it!)
After gaining cult notoriety with films like Mimic and Blade II, director Guillermo del Toro shows his talented eye for high-adventure filmmaking again with Hellboy. The visual imagery and subject matter is about as intense as you can push a PG-13 rating, with monsters being killed off, creatures rising from the dead, and Lovecraft-inspired sequences of the end of the world as we know it. Toward the end, there’s a feeling of something not quite finished or that more was to come, but maybe that a story for next time around. Hellboy is huge onscreen, character driven, and demands a sequel; enjoy it with your own favorite adopted demon.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)