The Amazing Screw-on Head Review
A comedy take on the pulp elements that are treated with a little more darkness and gravity in the Hellboy series, The Amazing Screw-on Head was written and drawn by Mike Mignola as a one-off comic for Dark Horse Comics, presenting the artist with an opportunity to let loose and have some fun with some new characters and situations. Although it differs in tone from his best known work, the comic, which went on to win a prestigious Eisner Award, is nonetheless quintessential Mignola, full of occult and arcane elements, and more importantly, lots of cool battles with zombies, vampires, werewolves and demigods in dark underground caverns.
Adapting it into animation for the Sci-Fi Channel, the team of Chris Prynoski and Bryan Fuller clearly wanted to keep all the elements that make the story such a little gem, and evidently a lot of that is down to Mike Mignola’s distinctive and expressive shadowy artwork. While keeping the style of the artwork utterly faithful to many of the original designs and panels from the comic, the creators nevertheless manage to extrapolate on them slightly and play around in the little universe Mignola has created, expanding characters slightly, adding a few complementary situations without overstepping the mark, adding a new dimension to the work through animation techniques and voice acting.
All the fabulous dark, occult elements that make Hellboy such an entertaining pulp adventure are here to some extent in The Amazing Screw-on Head. The titular hero who battles against strange and supernatural entities that the public and conventional history books know nothing about, works on the orders of President Abraham Lincoln – the period affording lots of opportunity to create fabulous steampunk devices (designed here by Guy Davis, Baker Street, The Marquis). Screw-on Head’s nemesis, the person behind most of the outbreaks of occult activity and nefarious earth-threatening deeds in his quest for forbidden knowledge, is one Emperor Zombie.
The villain’s latest escapade has taken place at The Museum of Dangerous Books and Papers, where some of his henchmen – two lycanthropic grannies and a chimp with a gun – have made off with a rare scroll. The untranslatable parchment is supposed to contain knowledge of the whereabouts of a large jewel once owned by Gung The Magnificent, who nearly conquered the world in 9632 BC. Accordingly, Emperor Zombie has also abducted Professor Fruen, and is prepared to make use of his knowledge and learning in an unconventional fashion. The threat to America and consequently the world, is immense, so President Lincoln despatches Screw-on Head, sending him in the direction of his former lover now turned vampire, Patience, who they believe can lead him to Emperor Zombie.
With the sheer richness of imagination on display here and the amount of fun that can be derived from such characters and situations, it may seem surprising that The Amazing Screw-on Head has not yet been developed into any kind of continuing series. This would appear to be the viewpoint of the creators of the short animation – it’s only 22 minutes long – who have adapted Mignola’s one-off comic into a pilot, from which they can go on to expand the character through new adventures. I suspect that they have missed the point, and tend to agree with Mike Mignola that the short comic already contained everything that he wanted to do with the character. It might have the potential for the occasional one-shot, but dragging out the Pythonesque parody of every pulp horror convention over the length of a series would probably only serve to over-labour the joke to diminishing returns.
As a one-off show however, this is marvellous. The animation is a dream for any fans of Mike Mignola, seeing his work and designs brought faithfully to the screen, aided considerably it must be said through the involvement of Mignola’s colourist, Dave Stewart – proving in the process that contrary to the belief of the creators of the Hellboy Animated Series, Mignola’s dark, angular, shadowy designs will work successfully in the medium. The key to its success as a work of animation however is down to the excellent choices in the casting of voice actors, with Paul Giamatti and David Hyde Pierce, consistently striking exactly the right tone of knowing tongue-in-cheek parody, without descending into all-out campness. Just about.
The Amazing Screw-on Head is released in the USA by Lions Gate. The film is presented on a single-layer disc – more than adequate for the short 22-minute episode – it’s in NTSC format and is encoded for Region 1.
The marvellously designed animation is given a fine transfer here and for the most part looks superb, with deep rich colouration and strong, solid blacks. The usual issues that tend to come with animation on DVD are also evident here however in the form of some interlacing and ghosting, but other than some jaggedness in lines, there is little that is troublesome during normal playback on a CRT display. Even on a progressive display, this looks strong, but with the interlaced image, panning shots tend to judder or pulsate across the screen. There is a choice of a 4:3 pan and scan presentation of the episode, or a 16:9 anamorphic widescreen transfer. I need hardly tell you that the widescreen version is infinitely preferable.
Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 options are provided and both are excellent – voices clear and strong, the ambience and music score well distributed across the surrounds.
Optional English subtitles are provided for hard-of-hearing, as well as a Spanish subtitles option. They are in a white font and quite clear and readable.
The Commentary by Chris Prynoski and Bryan Fuller is totally dispensable. It largely consists of pointing out what scenes were taken directly from the comic and crediting everyone involved with “shout-outs”. More interesting is the Storyboard Comparison (2:15), showing one scene in full, split-screen between storyboards, animatic and finished sequence. The featurette From Comic to Cartoon: Making The Amazing Screw-on Head (13:36) brings in all the creators, including Mike Mignola, and looks at the original comic, the decision on how to adapt it and assembling the right creative team and voice actors. Trailers are also included for the Lions Gate releases of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon and the animated Iron Man. The cover advertises an exclusive comic book, but in reality, it's an insert that includes concept designs and some character illustrations by Mike Mignola.
I wish I could recommend The Amazing Screw-on Head more highly, but it is only 22 minutes long and it is probably an acquired taste. It’s also a strange choice for a pilot animation series. Although the characters and pulp adventures seen to have unlimited potential, the situations have already exhaustively explored in this rapid moving adventure and any further expansion will either repeat the formula or take it in an entirely different direction than was originally envisioned. I’d happily be proved wrong on this though and see this successfully taken further, as will any fans of Mike Mignola and Hellboy since the creator’s vision is put onto the screen here more faithfully than you could possibly imagine. Despite the short length of the episode, some effort has been put into the extra features, the DVD is of high quality and it is quite inexpensive if bought from the DVD Pacific link below.