With its R-rating, Hellboy gleefully dials up the gore. If only it had dialled up the story, too.
Rarely has a film more perfectly encapsulated the notion of so close, yet so far. Directed by Neil Marshall, whose previous credits include the impressive horror flick The Descent and some major episodes of Game Of Thrones, Hellboy is an absolute mess of a thing, despite boasting a terrific cast, memorable set pieces, impressive CGI and one of the more intriguing and inventive protagonists in recent comic book history.
Hellboy, of course, already has two films in his honour, both of them written and directed by Mr Monster himself: Guillermo del Toro. The question that loomed large over this 2019 version, then, was whether it sought to be a rebooted origin story or a semi-continuation of the pre-existing franchise. The schizophrenic patchwork of a story we end up with suggests the studio simply couldn't decide. Timelines leap from the Arthurian legend to modern day to WWII to the 80s, usually for the purpose of dumping massive loads of exposition. The entire film feels rushed and discordant; a fever dream of fight scenes and plotlines that neither link to what came prior nor have much relevance to what follows.
In the lead, Stranger Things star David Harbour does his darndest to breathe life into what little script there is, imbuing his Hellboy with an admirable level of angst, sarcasm and unwieldy brawn. Credit, too, to the movie's makeup team, who've managed to wholly transform Harbour into a hulking creature from the underworld despite little to no CGI at play. Opposite him, Milla Jovovich puts in the film's most understated yet compelling performance as Nimue the Blood Queen, whose equal rights for monsters mantra offers a tantalisingly defensible motivation for her murderous ways. Sadly, Hellboy gives little time to ideas, opting instead for as many gory deaths, clanger one-liners and f-bombs that it can squeeze in.
And on the gore front, Hellboy certainly makes full use of its R-rating, particularly in the film's final stages when Hell's assortment of nightmarish demons begin crushing, skewering and skinning the hapless inhabitants of London. The demons themselves are spectacularly imagined, as is the infamous Baba Yaga, the Slavic witch with an appetite for small children. Her scene with Hellboy is beautifully designed, genuinely well-written, and appropriately grotesque. But even then, there's one major ingredient missing: terror. It's a phenomenon repeated multiple times throughout the film, and one that's not easily diagnosed. Scenes that should be scary simply aren't, just as jokes that should be funny don't even come close. If you imagine the film as a piece of music, the levels are all out — as if the sound mixer dialled everything up that should be down, and vice versa.
Which brings us back to so close, yet so far. Whatever forces were at play to screw this up, the fact remains the pieces were there to produce something great. Hellboy could have been any number of films: a comic book horror movie with genuine scares, a comedy action flick or even a compelling Maleficent-esque drama about misunderstood heroes and villains vying for their right to a place on this earth. Instead, it's an embarrassment.