Adapted by Guillermo del Toro from Mike Mignola’s cult comic, Hellboy is both jocular and rhapsodic. There’s plenty of Wagnerian sturm und drang but a dose of teen weltschmerz as well. The skies brood, and so does the eponymous protag.
Mignola’s mondo-20th-century backstory blends Nazi theatrics with czarist decadence, H.P. Lovecraft, and J.D. Salinger. The movie opens somewhere in Scotland in 1944; it’s pouring rain, and in an eccentric attempt to reverse the fortunes of war, the German army—led by a bulletproof scissor-hands ghoul—has come ashore to stage a satanic mass conducted by none other than mad monk Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden). This endeavor to jimmy open the portal to hell is aborted, but not before a cute li’l imp tumbles out: Hellboy.
Cut to the present and 60-year-old Hellboy, raised by the affable occultologist Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), has matured into a big-jawed, barrel-chested, stumpy-horned bright red devil (Ron Perlman). The FBI keeps this big order of tandoori chicken under wraps as a secret crime fighter and, in the time-honored comic-book tradition, he remains a teenager at heart—moody, wisecracking, addicted to junk food, and schlepping a massive torch for the comely Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a depressed pyro-kinetic apt to burst into flames in moments of stress.
In the first installment of this optimistically projected franchise, Hellboy copes with the return of Rasputin and the plague of madly proliferating, tentacled slime creatures that the monk and his cohorts have loosed on the subways and museums of what is claimed to be New York—meanwhile he’s breaking in his new human partner, John Myers (Rupert Evans). That Myers is also attracted to Liz further serves to raise the angst level. Someone’s gotta be sacrificed. Although Hellboy seems fundamentally pagan, with its casual references to entities like “the Seven Gods of Chaos,” del Toro does smuggle in a bit of Christian allegory. At one point, HB is saved from his dark side by the timely appearance of stigmata, even as Myers informs him that “You have a choice—your father gave you that.”
Based on a formula reducible to X-Men in Black, the Hellboy premise has more than its share of comic elements. To his credit, del Toro does not flinch from the ridiculous. But he is equally sensitive to Hellboy‘s pulp poetry. The movie takes place mainly at night, usually in the rain, with frequent overhead shots to emphasize the poignance of HB’s plight. The CGI effects are never overweening. Del Toro achieves a certain dark beauty by contriving to show his hero as the single red patch in a roiling blue field or watching Blair’s tragic somnambulist wend her way through scenes that are less dramatic than miasmatic.
A nonstop Ragnarok of teenage crushes and constant squidicide, Hellboy ends on a note of pure romantic ecstasy. One would have to be further removed from adolescence than me to be unmoved by the spectacle of two love-starved paranormals consumed in the blue flambé of their Baked Alaska kiss.