How do you improve upon perfection? Neil Marshall tried with his Hellboy reboot, but that’s an utter stinker as stated in Steve Newall’s 1-star review. So to properly honour the originals, Maria Lewis takes a look at what makes them so great, deep diving into the 10 greatest moments from the first two films.
Before Marvel Studios cracked the nut, Guillermo Del Toro was the only bro in town who knew what the fuck he was doing when it came to making comic book movies. In 2002, he made one of the greatest sequels of all time (fight me) with Blade II, based on the vampire-slaying Marvel character of the same name. Just two years later in 2004, he delivered the sweeping, stunning, and sarcastic Hellboy. His long-time collaborator Ron Perlman got to fill the horns and play the cult comic book character based on Mike Mignola’s enduring series over at Dark Horse.
The first film grossed just a hair under $100M worldwide, on a $65M budget, a feat that’s pretty extraordinary considering the cast lacked a single ‘star’. It was compromised of talented, underrated players finally given something to chew on: Perlman at full swagger as Hellboy, Doug Jones as his BFF Abe Sapien, Selma Blair as the pyrokinetic love interest Liz Sherman, John Hurt as surrogate father Professor Broom and a handful of other unusual players it’s unlikely people outside of Del Toro would have given a chance in Hollywood.
Then came Hellboy 2: The Golden Army in 2008, a film that was even grander in scale and scope. Like the original, it too was beloved by critics – even more so than Hellboy – with Helen O’Hara from Empire Magazine calling it “hellaciously good” and adding that it “has more heart and humour than most fantasy films can dream of”.
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As far as cinematic runs go, Guillermo Del Toro is three-for-three in excellent comic book movies that have outlasted trends and endured long after their theatrical campaign. Mignola’s world of Hellboy was seemingly the perfect union of source material and storyteller. With Neil Marshall now set to take a crack with the upcoming Hellboy and David Harbour playing the half-demon, we thought we’d take a glimpse back at 10 of the almost awesome moments from those first two films.
This is Abe Sapien’s first proper opportunity to flex his powers beyond being wet. They also vary slightly from the comics, with the addition of psychic abilities (very handy as a storytelling device). After coming across a gruesome scene at a museum, Broom turns to his amphibian colleague and asks “Abe, show me what happened here”. Placing a webbed hand on the Professor, the room around them blurs and time is reversed as we’re taken back to the scene pre-crime.
It’s here we get the full, unleashed view of supervillain Karl Ruprecht Kroenen (played by dancer and choreographer Ladislav Beran) as he desolates an entire staff of security guards. It’s beautiful, deadly, and sets the bar for the precision of Prince Nuada’s fight scenes that would come later in Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.
Even though Broom was killed in the first movie, Hurt is so damn good it’s no wonder they brought him back for the sequel – albeit only in flashback form. It’s a nice throwback to the original film, which of course opens with how a young Broom and baby Hellboy first crossed paths while the former fought the Nazis in an attempt to casually open a hell dimension. Hellboy II opens on Christmas Eve in 1955, with teenage Groot from Guardians Of The Galaxy: Vol 2 owing a lot to the portrayal of teenage Hellboy here.
The moments between Broom and Hellboy are frequently some of the most touching throughout both films and we get that here, but we also get the Professor telling a bedtime story. Of course, it’s not just a bedtime story – Del Toro is not a wasteful man. It’s the whole history of The Golden Army and a breakdown of the complex elf politics, all told to us through the medium of animation. With Hurt’s narration (honestly, you could listen to him read a phonebook and it would be beautiful) and the highly stylised execution, it’s more than just a prologue.
8. “My kittens! Please, somebody get my kittens!” (Hellboy)
Hellboy has a well-established thing for cats, with our first glimpse of his living quarters showing dozens that he keeps as pets. It’s a rather brilliant touch, then, that during the middle of an epic battle with Saamiel – one of the Hounds Of Hell – in a New York subway station, a box of kittens is thrown into the fray. In these catastrophic action scenes that are staples of comic book movies, it’s human beings that are so often in peril and audiences are used to seeing heroes go out of their way to save them (or in the case of Man Of Steel, disregard them altogether to pummel a few skyscrapers and presumably send thousands to their deaths).
That’s what we’re set up to expect in this moment, as innocent bystanders watch on in horror as Hellboy fights to keep Saamiel at bay. Cue a random box of kittens and a woman desperately crying “My kittens! Please, somebody get my kittens!” It’s ridiculous and hilarious at the same time, doubling down when she adds “Ah, my kittens! They’re all I have!”. As an exhausted Hellboy fights a demon with one hand and cradles a box of mewing kittens in the other, he manages to grunt “lady, give me a break”.
It’s a great moment, with the action and humour balanced so perfectly they recreated it in Hellboy II when he’s forced to cradle a baby in one hand and combat a forest elemental as it attempts to destroy a city with the other.
The role of firestarter Liz Sherman is Selma Blair’s best, let it be said. Although her pyrokinetic abilities remain the same from the comic books, her relationship with Hellboy is switched from being platonic to romantic in what is one of the more tender storylines. While it takes the entire first movie for them to get together, by Hellboy II they’ve fallen into their roles as domestic lovers (albeit supernatural ones). They’re affectionate, but they’re also sarcastic. They bicker, but they stand solidly by the other’s side. It’s a strangely normal portrayal of a long-term relationship.
After Abe discovers that Liz is pregnant earlier in the film and this information is used at a pivotal moment to bring Hellboy back from the brink, it’s the closing frames of Hellboy II where we first get teased about a possible happy ending for Liz and Hellboy. Up until then, there has been a sense of inevitable doom when it comes to any potential happiness for our key characters. Yet as the opening whistle of Barry Manilow’s Can’t Smile Without You begins to increase in volume – throwing back to the film’s best scene – Hellboy rants about finding a place big enough for the forthcoming baby. “Babies,” Liz corrects him, a surprised and delighted Hellboy spinning around to face Liz. With a smug smile, she wiggles two fingers at him. And just like that – credits.
The first Hellboy got a shit load done with its $65 million budget, especially when you think about Van Helsing – which came out that same year – and had a budget of $160 million. I repeat, the movie with Hugh Jackman in a soggy hat for two hours had AN EXTRA ONE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS TO SPEND than Hellboy. No need to ask which one has endured. When it came to the sequel, Hellboy II’s budget was bumped by only $20 million – to $85 million overall – but damn were they able to make that stretch. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Troll Market scene.
Every frame is loaded with incredible character design, detailed world building, Oscar-nominated make-up effects, and kooky performances delivered by the actors under those prosthetics (one of them being Doug Jones in yet another role). It’s like the Star Wars cantina on steroids, as Hellboy and the team find themselves immersed in the supernatural world rather than the human one, for once.
If there’s an underrated MVP of these movies, it’s gotta be the always brilliant John Hurt as Broom aka Hellboy’s surrogate father. He brings a warmth, a kindness, and a loving paternity to the role. All of his qualities are the things that imbue Hellboy with his humanity, despite the fact he’s actually half-demon. It could have so easily been a nothing part, with any statesman-like British actor being the vessel for exposition about the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense and wearer of many excellent waistcoats.
Yet Hurt was rarely ever someone to do nothing; he consistently delivered in big roles or small ones. And he was able to do more than just ‘infodump’ when it was required. In the initial Hellboy, Rupert Evans’ character Agent Myers was entirely useless besides being a romantic competitor for Hellboy and as a conduit for the audience as they learn about the hierarchy and politics of the supernatural universe being established.
It’s just a moment, but it’s Hurt’s delivery of a single line that perfectly sums up everything we need to know about the BPRD in a snappy soundbite. “There are things that go bump in the night, Agent Myers. And we bump back.”
Doug Jones played multiple roles in Hellboy II, among them the Angel of Death. It’s some jaw-dropping character design, courtesy of Del Toro’s macabre imagination, with Jones bringing the monster to life not just with his physicality but the raspy, haunting vocals with which he predicts Liz and Hellboy’s inevitable doom. With that mouth and the dozens of eyes set into the grey, ashy wings, the Angel Of Death manages to invoke another one of Del Toro and Jones’ famous characters – the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth – yet at the same time, is something completely unique and terrifying.
As a horror visionary, it’s hard to find anyone better that Del Toro. Tim Burton used to have a knack for it, but now he has spent the past decade of his career fapping about. Del Toro’s mind, on the other hand, remains as demented and grotesque as ever. He’s a man who contains multitudes, with beauty often hiding horror or – in this case – adorable versions of the tooth fairy being God damn petrifying.
The whole sequence right from when BPRD and the ill-fated human agents at their side enter the auction house up until Hellboy’s plummet from the building is stacked. There are interpersonal revelations – like Liz’s pregnancy – to gross out gore – hello an entire building covered in decomposition. Perhaps what’s most lasting, however, is shot-after-shot of human beings getting devoured alive by tiny and undeniably adorable tooth fairies that leave very little behind. Yikes.
Among all of the incredible creature effects, striking visuals and production design, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle of what Del Toro manages to do in Hellboy and Hellboy II. Yet it’s the human moments that truly touch, just like Hellboy getting relationship advice from a nine-year old as he eats milk and cookies on a rooftop watching Liz Sherman and Agent Myers on a date. It’s the juxtaposition of the outlandish with the relatable, and what’s more relatable than love?
After ducking and weaving around each other for the bulk of the movie, it’s clear Liz and Hellboy have profound feelings for each other. Yet those feelings are in direct conflict with her desire to be normal and his tendency to be, well, a huge red horned demon. In the finale, despite saving the day, all seems lost as Liz lays unconscious and without a pulse.
Utilising his otherworldly powers, Hellboy whispers in her ear and she’s revived. She tells him she heard his voice in the dark and when asked what he said, he replies: “I said ‘hey, you on the other side … let her go. Cos for her, I’ll cross over, and then you’ll be sorry’.” Finally, they share a kiss and the music swells as Liz’s fire spreads outwards and consumes them both. For once, she’s not worried about the destruction she might cause: Hellboy is the one creature she can’t burn.
1. Abe Sapien and Hellboy’s sloshed sing-a-long (Hellboy II)
Hellboy was doubly a gift for Jones and Perlman, both of them having played smaller, supporting roles, and quirky characters up until Del Toro gave them room to move in this franchise. Some 15 years on, it was a career-defining moment for both of them with larger and larger parts coming after this (notably Jones as the fuckable fishman in The Shape Of Water and Perlman’s seven season run on Sons Of Anarchy).
Yet it was the sloshed sing-a-long in Hellboy II where they truly got to shine, both as performers and as the beloved characters Abe Sapien and Hellboy. Together, they have so much chemistry as lovesick monsters bonding over the very human nature of the heart. Nowhere is the essence of what makes these movies so great better captured than Abe and Hellboy drunk, singing along to Barry Manilow’s hit Can’t Smile Without You. It’s absurd, hilarious, charming, and romantic all at the same time.