Hell with heart

It was a dark and stormy night ... Hellboy, the new movie based on the comic-book character, could well start with this famous phrase from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford.

It is a dark and stormy night, towards the end of World War II. Secretly observed by a special Allied team, a bunch of occult Nazis, led by a resurrected Rasputin, are using sophisticated technology to create a doorway into hell itself, from which they hope to summon the Seven Gods of Chaos.
Once they arrive, the Seven Gods will presumably be on the Nazis’ side. The Allied team intervenes as Rasputin and the Nazis open the portal, and manage to close it, but not before at least one little creature from hell has been sucked into this world.

The little creature in question, nicknamed Hellboy almost at once, will grow into a huge, bright-orangey-red muscle-man with a long devilish tail, horns on his forehead and one arm that looks (and acts) like a battering ram. He’ll also have a taste for cigars, a tendency to be grumpy, and a fondness for cats. By the time we see him again, long after that dark and stormy night, this spawn of Satan has been raised under the protection of the nice professor of the occult (John Hurt) who first made friends with him.

In a movement contrary to that of Darth Vader, Hellboy has gone over to the Light Side; he is employed repelling other hellish monsters as they arrive, with the worst of intentions, in our world. And now Hellboy has a new and especially dangerous task: Rasputin, so often thought dead, is back again to wreak havoc—and he will, of course, be trying once more to raise those Seven Gods of Chaos.

Hellboy is played by Ron Perlman, hitherto mostly a character actor in roles where he has made good use of his oddly shaped face and husky voice. (He looks and sounds a bit like Tom Waits.) In real life the actor is much older (54) than his Hellboy would seem: in the movie he has been given a prosthetic bodysuit of muscles as well as lots of make-up. But then Hellboy doesn’t age at the same rate as humans anyway.

And it doesn’t really matter, because one forgets all the prosthesis. Marvellously, Perlman has managed to get a personality to shine through the make-up—and it’s an interesting, complex, conflicted, ultimately sympathetic personality. Hellboy is a big violent grump, but he also nurtures a tendresse for a woman with firestarter skills (Selma Blair). The scenes between them, and others in which Hellboy’s romantic jealousy is aroused, have a beautiful delicacy entirely at odds with his apparently ultra-macho nature, but they work, and they deepen the character as well as our affection for him.

This, indeed, is an acting job to make Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet look creaky. Naturally, Perlman gets a great deal of credit for such an unlikely success, but kudos must also go to director Guillermo del Toro, who not only can magic up the most stunning action sequences but locate them in a good-looking and truly atmospheric setting—while also giving the characters more internal life than comic-book figures usually have.

Del Toro has apparently been interested in Hellboy, in his comic-book form, for ages—and it shows. There’s love in the detail, as well as in the over-arching conception of this universe. Del Toro’s Catholic background is presumably at play in his willingness to chuck in the odd crucifix when necessary; this is equal-opportunity mumbo-jumbo.

In any case, despite the overt fantasy of the whole thing, Hellboy has at its centre a sense of utter conviction. As entertainment goes, it’s a huge orangey-red amount of fun, with a great deal of energy, style, intelligence and wit. We know from previous Del Toro pictures such as Blade II that he’s good at this kind of film—and Hellboy blows recent comic-book adapations such as Spider-Man and Catwoman right out of the water. What’s a surprise is that Hellboy has such a big heart.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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