This Hellboy trades weird for gore with mixed results
More than anything, the stringy, greasy hair and red, pockmarked skin of 2019's Hellboy reminded me of the Nick Nolte mugshot. There are ways 2019's Hellboy distinguishes itself from 2004's Hellboy, ways it visually insists it isn't a reboot but a different adaptation of the same source material, and sometimes those changes work and sometimes they make Hellboy look like he's more broken by time and bad career decisions than by Lovecraftian squid monsters.
This extends to nu-Hellboy's secondary characters-- you have to include Hellboy in your Hellboy movie, but this film removes most of the older films' sidekicks (notably, Selma Blair's Liz Sherman and genius fish-man Abe Sapien) in favor of Alice Monaghan (American Honey's Sasha Lane) and Ben Daimio (Lost's Daniel Dae Kim). Storywise, this doesn't mean much; brand-wise, it's clear this movie is doing its best to avoid comparisons to Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy movies, the last of which came out less than ten years ago. If this Hellboy gets a sequel (and it badly wants one), maybe there will be time to revisit characters like psychic-steam-energy-in-a-suit-man Johann Kraus, but for now, everybody involved really hopes you forget about how much you may have wanted to see Ron Perlman in Hellboy 3.
This Hellboy opens with a series of flashbacks, one of which includes Thomas Haden Church making a cameo as WWII pulp hero Lobster Johnson. It feels like a TV show pitch. The Lobster's team discovers Hellboy, a boy from Hell, and from there we spend two hours watching grown-up Hellboy fight creatures from various mythologies. Hellboy wrestles a vampire in Mexico, hunts giants in the UK and crosses paths with Baba Yaga in a kind of hellish nightmare forest.
These scenes are all fun enough on their own, but mostly work the way they did in the original comics-- they're novel detours that come out between the big, "important" story arcs. They can also become both thrilling and grating over the course of the same sequence. Fighting for the title of “most grating embellishment,” we have terrible sound mixing. Nearly every fight is soundtracked by cranked-up blues rock. Hellboy picks up a sword or starts running toward a bad guy and you flinch a little in your seat, preparing for a guitar riff that's three times louder than anything else in the movie. And the special effects can be fine or terrible. In his fight with the British giants, Hellboy jumps between them, improvising and trying to play them off each other. The giants, entirely made from digital effects, look good on their own, but the little Hellboy pinballing around looks like he was shot in front of a dusty green screen. It's tough, watching a movie that's always doing as much wrong as it's doing right, when it magnates to actually do something right.
When I say Hellboy travels across continents, you might imagine I'm describing an epic movie. In reality, everything plays like it's being projected at 1.5x speed. Characters meet with characters, quickly make clear whether they like or dislike each other, and then head off to do whatever they're doing without explaining too much of what's motivating them. England isn't a country, it's a field. Mexico is a wrestling ring. At one point, Milla Jovovich's big bad convinces Hellboy that he's better than human beings and that he doesn't have to serve people who treat him like he's a monster, and there are a few scenes where Hellboy mulls this over, yelling at humans about how maybe monsters wouldn't hate humans if humans didn't always kill monsters. After a semi-twist, we find out, spoiler alert, that Hellboy is part-human. He stops yelling at humans and never mentions it again.
From the start, the hook for 2019's Hellboy was that it'd be more of a horror movie than its predecessors had been. The same day David Harbour was announced as the new lead, Neil Marshall was announced as his director. Marshall broke out with the 2005 film The Descent, which is one of those movies where the entire marketing campaign is based around other people telling you it's the scariest thing they've ever seen. And The Descent was great. It was a claustrophobic movie about a small group of women going deep into monster-infested caves. Any given frame of the movie was at least 50% pitch black, and watching it, I felt as trapped by the shrinking tunnels and vampire C.H.U.D.S. as any of the movie's characters did.
Over the past 14 years, Marshall has made two (bad) movies that are violent but aren't trying to be scary, and he's directed a bunch of prestige TV. It isn't clear why any of us thought bringing him to Hellboy would make this movie frightening. For a decade-and-a-half, Marshall has been "The Descent's Neil Marshall" while actively moving away from movies like The Descent. And that movie's scares are so specific, so focused on getting you to feel squeezed into a corner, that it also isn't clear what a scary Neil Marshall Hellboy movie would even look like. He's got a very good trick under his belt, but not only is he uninterested in trotting it out again, he's also adapting source material where the scares are rooted in the uncanny and in the classic-definition-of-the-word "weird."
Comics Hellboy deals with a lot of creeping dread, but not much slasher violence. Marshall ends up steering toward gore, earning his film's R-rating with a bunch of scenes where people are torn apart. Hellboy and his friends are fine, of course, but plenty of background characters get flayed, decapitated and worse. All the main characters swear like 10-year-olds convinced swearing is badass.
The best scene in this Hellboy happens out of nowhere, when magic summons Hellboy to Baba Yaga's chicken-legged house. The action is clean, Baba Yaga looks and moves terrifyingly, the characters hint at their past clashes without over-explaining anything. I wonder if this was the first thing the crew shot, when it seemed like they were making something great that transcended intellectual property management, or if it was shot last, when everybody had finally been able to learn what was and wasn't working. If it was shot somewhere in the middle, and the quality just took a freak spike before settling back down, we're dealing with a clever piece of meta-horror about building and shattering audience trust.
Hellboy opens in Philly theaters today.