For those of you keeping track at home, Hellboy (2019) is the third Hellboy movie, based on the nineties Mike Mignola comic, directed by The Descent‘s Neil Marshall and starring Stranger Things‘ David Harbour as Hellboy. It’s a “reboot” that ignores the two previous Hellboy movies, directed by Guillermo Del Toro and starring Ron Perlman.
Did it need to exist? Probably not. Am I glad it does? Absolutely. Will it be a movie people yell at me in six months for loving? …Possibly. Exuberantly gross and proudly ridiculous, this Hellboy feels like the picture Glenn Danzig sees in his head when he doodles in his notebook.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy movies attempted to ground Hellboy‘s inherent weirdness and make him sympathetic. That’s largely Del Toro’s MO — take offbeat sci-fi and anchor it with heartfelt earnestness. By contrast, Marshall’s version is proudly, performatively bugfuck, an extended excuse for preposterously vulgar visuals.
Right off the bat, it drops us right into a raging torrent of exposition: the 517 AD battle between humans and supernatural hell creatures, in which the leader of the humans, King Arthur, tricks the queen of the underworld, Simue (played by Milla Jovovich), into a parlay. As Ian McShane narrates it, Simue starts to unleash an apocalyptic plague (like a swarm of grey bees that makes skin bubble and melt, Toxic Avenger style) but before you can say “Leelu Multipass,” King Arthur lops off her hand with Excalibur, then her head, dismembering her scantily clad body as she screams and has the pieces locked in small trunks and sent to the edges of the Earth.
And that’s just the first two minutes. It sets the tone for the entire movie: McShane’s brash theatricality, the over-the-top violence, grossness, and gore (did I mention this version is rated R?); the way this Hellboy is so unapologetically itself. Rather than slow the story down, back it up, and try to get us to understand and identify with the stakes like Del Toro did, breakneck speed is this Hellboy‘s entire aesthetic. Which fits. The whole thing feels like a Satanic thrash metal album cover come to life, and taking things slow and trying to get everyone on board isn’t really thrash’s thing. Every exposition sequence in Hellboy (and there are many) slams into you like a chugging wave of muted power chords. No buildup, all distortion, a baptism by fire.
Hellboy is the perfect Gen X protagonist, down to the long hair and bushy soul patch. Angst-filled and born into an unfair world — literally summoned from the depths of hell by Rasputin at the end of WWII (a timeline discrepancy the film boldly lets stand without explanation) — he’s an outcast, a literal demon rebelling against his nature (he files off his horns every morning) taking out his aggression on his adopted father, Professor Broom (McShane). He doesn’t seem to know what he even wants, other than to be left alone. Why is he here? What is he meant for? What’s the point of all this?
Hellboy has feelings, man. Yet his father has forced him into the family business — paranormal detectivery — and frequently sends him out on dangerous assignments to kill various hell creatures, like bone-chomping giants and boar-men. Where he’s often in as much danger from the humans he’s meant to help — who think Hellboy is the anti-Christ, the future husband of Simue and the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy to return evil to Earth — as he is from the bad guys he’s meant to kill. His only friend is Alice (played by the divine Sasha Lane from American Honey), a spirit medium Hellboy saved from an evil fairy when she was a baby. They’re partnered with a British paranormalist paramilitary played by Daniel Dae Kim, whose fake British accent is much worse than Lane’s (in a movie where Hellboy is summoned from hell by Rasputin during World War II, would giving these two their natural accents really have been that much of a stretch?).
Hellboy is all mixed up. Should he keep killing his demon brothers and trying to please his father for a human populace that only seems to hate and fear him, or give in to Simue and become the great demon king the devil creatures are desperate to worship? What’s a confused adolescent boy to do?
Hellboy is an expression of everyone-hates-me angst manifesting in a desire for all things gorey, gross, and ghoulish, the old “if this is what you call good, dad, then I’d just as soon be bad” type of rebellion, complete with bad dye job and slammed bedroom door. It captures the impetus for, and tone of, heavy metal beautifully. Not quite parody, but certainly self-conscious cheek, and above all, an attempt to provoke a reaction.
It’s mostly visual effects-driven. Scenes of Hellboy fighting ogrish CGI giants should be boring but they aren’t, thanks to the artists involved treating every image as a new opportunity to thumb us in the eye. Every demon death is extremely gross and graphic. When Hellboy makes a pact with an old hag, she seals it with a gratuitously phlegmy kiss. When Hellboy gets advice from dead people, they don’t show up as ghosts or Star Wars holograms — Alice the medium has to puke them out, like ballooned bundles of prolapsed intestine that deliver truisms and soliloquy.
I spent almost Hellboy‘s entire run time either recoiling in horror or howling with laughter. Like Hellboy‘s climax, the subtext of which is essentially the protagonist heroically screaming “Yuck, girls!” it was perfectly true to the spirit of an extended adolescent metalhead fantasy. I think this is how Hellboy was always meant to be.