Hellboy: 2-Disc Special Edition (R1) Review
“There are things that go bump in the night. And we are the ones who bump back!”
- Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt)
Few superheroes actually like their job. The ever-tormented Peter Parker is never sure if he wants to don that red and blue jump-suit, and patrol the streets. Bruce Wayne struggles to escape those painful memories of his dead parents, scouring the rooftops for crime as a lonely and conflicted hero. And lest we forget Bruce Banner. The successful scientist who turns into a monster when his pulse races. It really stinks to be a superhero. So much so, that their abilities or powers rarely compensate for the life they lead.
But Hellboy is different. His powers weren’t given to him by a radioactive spider or freak lab accident. And he certainly didn’t need to hone his abilities like Batman. In fact, he already has a suit, a ready-made one. It’s his skin - a deep red mass, embellished by his horns and demonic features. For Hellboy isn’t from our world, as his name would suggest. Yet, despite being “different”, Hellboy doesn’t treat his condition as a curse or burden. In fact, he is perfectly at home in his menacing frame, using his clear strength to fight evil where it lurks.
Hellboy begins in flashback, in Scotland, October 1944. The Nazis are continuing their bid for world domination, turning to supernatural forces to give them global power. Naturally, their plan is foiled by the American military; stopping them before an ancient evil can enter our world through a mystical portal. However, before the portal closes, a being has sneaked through. It is a baby demon, who is captured and taken under the wing of Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), who nicknames the creature “Hellboy”. The decades pass by. A grown up Hellboy (Ron Perlman) has become an agent of the FBI’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence, protecting the world from otherworldly attack.
But Hellboy isn’t alone, working with Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), an aquatic who is part fish, part man, and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a genuine firestarter, who can spark pyrotechnics at will. Soon, a new villain has entered the fray to test their patience - the legendary Rasputin (Karel Roden), who is working with the dark gods to bring about the end of existence. However, first he must draw Hellboy to the cause, an act which he might have some difficulty, considering the hero’s love for Liz and his “father”, Professor Bruttenholm.
One of the many comic books to splash onto the silver screen, Hellboy is without doubt one of the most inventive and quirky. In the wake of the brilliant Spider-Man 2, there is no sign of the comic movie craze slowing down. In fact, it seems to be gathering momentum, especially with the recent revelation that Bryan Singer will helm the long in-production Superman. Being a fan of these classic mythologies, I am certainly excited at the prospect of seeing Supes fly again. But, we’re talking Hellboy here. Created by the gifted Mike Mignola (who acts as a co-writer and executive producer), the underground comic has been adapted by master craftsman Guillermo del Toro, who has slowly become a favourite of mine over the years. The director is certainly right for the material, following the excellent Blade II, a Marvel property that proved he could handle action with skill. He also has a unique style, which has been evident in all of his films, from Cronos to Mimic, and his genuinely haunting Spanish horror film The Devil’s Backbone. Mixing a clear knowledge and appreciation of the film-making craft with a sly humour and OTT visuals, del Toro turns Hellboy into one of the most impressive action pictures of recent years.
The character first appeared 11 years ago, in the San Diego Comic Con Comics (issue #2 to be exact). It was greeted with high praise from the comic community. It wasn’t until later that Hellboy became its own entity. Carried under Dark Horse and Legend, the mythology for the series was cemented with “Seeds of Destruction”, an impressive mini-series that introduced the character and the world of Mignola. It is this debut that forms much of the films plot. Since then, the character has proceeded to gather a fan base both obscure and well-known (look for Kevin Smith’s references in Dogma). On another note, the supporting characters have also branched into their own titles, with Abe Sapien and “Junior Hellboy” leading their own adventures. This certainly left a lot of ground for del Toro to cover, and he has only touched the tip of the ice burg here, leaving a lot of potential for Hellboy 2.
The finished film opened at the US box office at number 1 - a considerable feat, especially since this is an obscure title amongst the masses. It finished up in the States with nearly $60 million in grosses, a stable figure that made back its budget several times over. However, cinema-goers in the UK have yet to see it, despite the films release in America last April. It doesn’t hit screens here until September - an incredibly frustrating wait indeed. Though, I’ll be the first to admit that the wait is worth it, and those with multi-region capability will no doubt find this release too good to miss. It’s a film with much to admire.
In most respects, Hellboy looks phenomenal, boasting reasonable production values and style up-the-wazoo. Del Toro literally goes insane with the colour. It practically sears the eyes with deep reds, blues and yellows, with the contrasting of light and dark throughout. His composition is also suitably verbose, and there are many instances where you could pause the film and translate the action to paper. As comic movies go, del Toro seems to have struck the right balance between reality and fiction, melding a believable, if zany fantasy world. This also aids the action, which is as pumped-up as you’d expect. One sequence has Hellboy hunting down a demonic beast through the streets, which culminates with a royal smackdown in the city’s subway. As his friend Agent Myers (Rupert Evans) falls into a lane of traffic, the sight of Hellboy slamming his stone fist into the front of a car, making it flip into the air like a rag doll, is incredible. The film is littered with these “money shots” making those repeat viewings a pleasure.
But since this is a Hollywood blockbuster, it isn’t surprising that the film is stuffed to the gills with CGI visuals. The creatures that Hellboy battles are a combination of close-up animatronics and blatant computer effects. Sometimes the transition isn’t perfect (a problem del Toro occasionally faced in Blade II). But it’s impressive nonetheless. And for once we don’t have to rely on the computer to create the title character, since Rick Baker’s astonishing make-up does most of the hard work. Coupled with Guillermo Navarro’s sure-fire cinematography, and Marco Beltrami’s resonant score, Hellboy looks and sounds like the bees-knees.
The biggest ace in del Toro’s mix, however, is the casting of the one and only Ron Perlman as Hellboy. He is outstanding - the perfect choice, and as del Toro and Mignola have confirmed, their only choice. Wearing the make-up and costume can’t have been easy, but Perlman carries off the job with ease. He is funny, compassionate
and commanding, making you feel for the character and cheer for him as he dispenses the bad guys left and right. His romance with Liz is tinged with sadness, and Perlman never seems to falter even when events are at their silliest. Doug Jones adds the movement to Abe, but his voice is provided by Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce. His
instantly-recognisable vocal range sometimes seems out of place (I for one, found it irksome to hear Niles’s voice coming from such a character), but it fits the role. The cast certainly love their creations, boding well for the sequel’s character development.
Hellboy may be a solid cinematic treat, but del Toro does stumble. The plot sometimes lacks coherence or impact (the “end of the world” scenario could have been bettered, despite its correlation with the comic). There are scenes that feel rushed, or perhaps cut short. It is no secret that Columbia plan to release the Director’s Cut of this film in November, so this “new” footage might help cover some of the plot holes. Also, Rasputin is a somewhat unthreatening villain, though this is no black mark against Roden’s performance. The character isn’t given much life aside from his 2D theatrics, which is a shame. Also, the role of Agent Myers needs to be more interesting - he is merely used as a plot device, so Professor Bruttenholm can relay many lines of exposition. Still, despite these slight peeves, Hellboy stands tall.
Fast, funny and exciting, Guillermo del Toro has done well with Hellboy, adding another classic to his resume. Comic fans should flock to see this in droves come September, and with a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man whetting our appetites for more superhero frolics, I highly recommend Hellboy’s first cinematic knock-out. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Columbia/Tri-Star give Hellboy the perfect DVD, making one wonder how they will top this with the next release. Spread over two crammed discs, this is quite the comprehensive collection, exhausting the viewer with its sheer range. From the get-go, I realised Columbia were putting the Special into “Special Edition”, with a glistening presentation. The menus, packaging, and bonus material are all well above-average.
The Look and Sound
Hellboy makes efficient use of its anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, and to state the obvious, it looks fantastic. The style of the comic has been retained to its full potential, with that first-rate cinematography coming across in crystal clear playback. The image has depth and detail. It’s sharp throughout, with the deep blacks and colours drawing the viewer in. Only a light vale of compression and edge enhancement pulls down the grade, but this is still exemplary. This puppy sure looks fine.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is also up to snuff, and it may even beat the video transfer. It really aids the atmosphere of this film. Dialogue, music, effects and surround activity pulsate from beginning to end. There is never a lapse in clarity, and the rears are always pumping with one effect or another. The absence of DTS is bemusing, but I can bet my bottom dollar that one will appear eventually. But I’m hardly complaining. Columbia have outdone themselves.
The film is divided into 28 chapters, with menus presented anamorphically, and a selection of subtitle options are also available.
Where do I begin? The first disc starts with an “Introduction by Director Guillermo del Toro”, which is a funny way to begin the supplements. There are two audio commentaries that await the viewer, after they’ve seen the film.
Audio Commentary by Guillermo del Toro and Mike Mignola
This a frank and technical discussion from these two creative forces. Though it is heavy on the geek speak, there is a light and breezy atmosphere to the proceedings that makes this an entertaining track. They’ve been friends for years, and del Toro’s obvious enthusiasm for the source material is clear from the start. Many details about the production are raised, making this constantly engaging. There is also brief mention of the “Director’s Cut”, to get us salivating. This commentary is a required listen.
The second features the cast of Hellboy, with Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor and Rupert Evans. Cast commentaries have never filled me with excitement, since they usually lack any real insight. But I was pleasantly surprised. They offer some amusing reflections, and just to hear Perlman’s voice is a blessing in my eyes. He has some cracking stories about donning that iconic make-up, that are a joy to hear.
But that’s not it for the first disc, since we have some excellent “Branching DVD Comics” drawn by Mignola and penned by del Toro. There are 8 of these comics, so fans of the graphic source might want to pick this up, since they won’t be found anywhere else. Talk about cool - this is a thoughtful addition. “The Right Hand of Doom: Branching Set Visits” is pretty much self-explanatory, and can be watched through the branching option, or accessed through an Index. The last branching extra is a collection of “Storyboards” that are worth a look.
But the first disc isn’t done with yet. “From the Den”, is a collection of short films that are supposed to be recommended by Hellboy himself(!). They are, as follows: "Gerald McBoing Boing", "Gerald McBoing Boing on Planet Moo", "How Now Boing Boing" and Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart". They have a combined running time of around 35-minutes, so there is much to enjoy. Access the DVD-ROM, and you can read the screenplay in its entirety.
There is another “Introduction” to start, this time by the lovely Selma Blair. The features here are divided into several sections, each documenting various aspects of the Hellboy production.
"The Egg Chamber"
This area begins with “The Seeds of Creation”, which, would you believe it, runs for nearly 2 and a half hours! This is a truly mammoth undertaking, that covers every base of the film-making craft. So good in fact, that it can stand alongside New Line’s treatment of the Lord of the Rings films. Make-up, action, direction, casting, screenwriting, shooting and post-production come under the spotlight in copious amounts of detail and footage. Outstanding.
The three “Deleted Scenes” total 5 minutes, and bag optional commentary by del Toro. The scenes suffer from varying quality, but they could easily fit into the feature, raising the possibility of an inclusion in the Director’s Cut.
We pick up here, with “Scene Progression”, a a storyboard featurette hosted by del Toro, which is followed up with a collection of “Animatics”, “Board-a-Matics” and “Storyboard Comparisons”. These come to around 30 minutes, and offer original sketches and design work, that stretch the boundaries of cinematic perspectives.
The “Maquette Video Gallery” has 3D models of key characters, providing a detailed analysis of the core group. Those who saw the “Rogue’s Gallery” on the Spider-Man DVD, will know what to expect here. The final section covers the promotional campaign that led to the number 1 opening at the box office. We get “Trailers and TV
Spots”, “Poster Designs”, and “Previews” for Spider-Man 2 and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. Also, if you’re in the mood, you’ll be pleased to know that both discs feature a whole host of Easter Eggs! Talk about comprehensive!
Gee-whiz Batman! The Devil better leave his fiery throne, since Hellboy is here to stay. He looks and sounds spectacular on this debut DVD, with more bonus material than you could possibly want. Those who fear the classic studio double dip, may want to wait until November’s deluxe edition, but for those who can’t wait, this “Special Edition” exceeds all expectations. That noise you hear is me whistling a jaunty tune! Well done Columbia...