There are a lot of tentacles in HELLBOY, squiggly, slimy-looking, Lovecraft-inspired killing machines with a taste for human flesh. Actually, any flesh. And theyre done with a nod to special effects legend Ray Harryhausen. Theres just a suspicion of his brand of stop-action movement that makes for a bit of 50s-style nostalgia amid the impending apocalypse. Hellboy himself (Ron Perlman) is a bit of a throwback, too, taking his cue for disaffected heroism from the angst-ridden James Dean school of rebelling without a cause, and the cool as ice macho posturing of Brandos breed of wild ones. Except this time, there is a cause, and its that tentacle-laden apocalypse.
Theres always an apocalypse. This one brought on by evil Nazis and a petulant Rasputin taking care of some unfinished business from World War II. Fighting the good fight is the professor (John Hurt) who discovered the nefarious plot in the first place, the one that combines Fascism with the less savory aspects of the occult. In this case, that would be opening a portal to where the lords of chaos dwell and inviting them over for a wholesale barbeque of everything on earth and beyond. Fortunately, the Yank infantry was able to stop things before they got too far out of hand, and the portal only succeeded in taking out one or two stray Nazis and delivering up a strange horned creature with a prehensile tail and a weakness for candy bars. Dubbed Hellboy by those wacky Yanks, he becomes the good professors adopted son, raised to fight evil as the one of the many secret weapons at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, located in New Jersey. Where else?
The script starts off with a bang, flashing back to the weird rituals that start all the trouble before landing in the present at breakneck speed with a quick introduction to a grown-up Hellboy, who is sulking after being grounded by the professor for unspecified reasons. Hellboy, it seems ages more slowly than mere humans, so while Dad is now in his feeble 80s, Big Red, as he is affectionately known, is more like 20, at least as near as they can figure. And considering the adolescent issues he seems to be harboring, that would be a good guess. No one sulks like a 6 5 guy who is bright red, flicks his tail, and is built like a Mack truck, moping in his lair and noshing on nachos with a dozen televisions going at once all showing cartoons. But the big guy does have a soft side, reserved for cats and Liz, the firestarter who left the Center to find some sort of peace at a minimum security psychiatric facility. That soft side also extends, in a snarky older brother sort of way, to Abe Sapien (voiced by the incomparable David Hyde-Pierce), a fishlike creature that prefers to hang out in his tank, but can venture forth to help foil evil with his intellect, psychic gifts, and acerbic wit. He isnt as tolerant of Myers (Rupert Evans), the new guy fresh from Quantico, hand-picked by the professor to watch over Hellboy, keeping him in line as while serving up his mountains of pancakes and vats of chili.
Perlman is fabulous, tossing off Hellboys cynical one-liners while nursing a broken heart when Liz starts showing an interest in Meyers. In fact, no matter how dangerous the situation or dire the peril, there is always time to stop and fret about whether Liz will ever want to be more than friends. Hes the reason the film works, because for all the muscle and rock (dont ask), Perlman makes us see past the big red guy with filed-down horns and into his troubled soul. And he can make us laugh while he does it. Hyde-Pierce, who appears in human form in an uncredited cameo, does his patented, endlessly engaging version of the effete egghead using just his voice. Doug Jones is the man in the fish suit, performing with a lithe grace that offers a delightful counterpoint to Hellboys big lug.
Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro, a genius in search of a masterpiece has come close here. Instead of just his usual refined elegance that uses sound and shadow to achieve a knuckle-biting creepiness, hes embraced the otherworldliness of the graphic novel, with its dramatic angles, looming primordial sets, and stylized color palette that presents a world just enough like our own to make it come alive. Hes never better than when letting the camera linger over a hatching pile of mini-monsters, or revealing slowly and methodically just what lies inside a masked, sword-wielding Nazi, such that when all is made clear, hes even scarier. The action sequences are stylish and the performances, pitched delicately between melodrama and satire, are just larger-than-life enough to jibe with all those tentacles.
With co-writer Peter Briggs, he weaves piquant bits of fact into the fabric of the fantasy, providing a touchstone of sorts, not unlike the performances. Facts like Hitler joining up with occult societies before and after coming to power, and that Rasputins putative assassination required shooting, stabbing, poisoning, and strangling topped off with a terminal dunk in the Neva River before he would give up the ghost. Pair that up with a wisecracking corpse and a bumbling, puffed-up paper-pusher (Jeffrey Tambor) from Washington mucking things up as Hellboy and company try to save the world, and youve got a rip-snorting good time. If it werent for the sag in the storys pacing halfway through that threatens to have the whole thing implode in on itself, it would be a perfect flight of fancy. Still, there is much to admire here, not the least of which is the blending of smart-ass sensibility and an understated but palpable sentimentality. Its a world where Abe can greet the roaches cascading from an open sewer with a mock-cheery observation about what a charmed life they all lead and then go on to do something ridiculously brave.
But all of this is about more than just tentacles. Maybe none of us came from another dimension, or can start fires without meaning to, but alienation and the oppressive sense of not fitting in anywhere is universal. Watching HELLBOY and his pals battle the bad guys is fun, but seeing them get the better of whats eating them inside is even better.