Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” has always been a story of dramatic contrasts. Here is Hellboy: a musclebound demon monster who fights evil and behaves like a blue-collar schlub, even though he’s the last great hope for humanity (and also is prophesied to destroy it). The horrifying creatures and stark color palette exist in clear opposition to the human and whimsical characters. What’s scary is also humdrum, and what’s humdrum is totally epic.
The first two “Hellboy” movies, directed by Guillermo del Toro, adapted Mignola’s creation into superhero stories tinged with fairy tale theater. They were sympathetic, hopeful films with tragic creatures and, at the center of the franchise, a charming romance. But that’s just one way to adapt it. The reboot by Neil Marshall (“Doomsday”) takes as many of Mignola’s contrasts as possible and shoves them into a single film, creating a sprawling saga of clashing conceits, wildly disparate tones and childlike whimsy tinged with ultra-violence.
And that’s not a critique; it’s very high praise.
Marshall’s “Hellboy” is a horrifyingly good time. It captures the breathless quality of reading 30 issues of a single comic-book series in one sugar-addled afternoon, shoving as many amazing characters and storylines and images into one film as it can possibly hold. It could have seemed overstuffed and frenetic, but this new “Hellboy” instead comes across as imaginative and freewheeling. Even the shocking violence is fun and humorous, harkening back to the good old days of splatstick horror classics like the “Evil Dead” and “Waxwork” movies.
David Harbour plays Hellboy, a red demon with a gigantic right hand made of stone. As our story begins, he’s in Tijuana, searching for a missing buddy from work who happens to have been transformed into a vampire luchador. Within a few minutes, a giant pig monster will attack a chapel full of monks and swallow one of their larynxes in order to speak some magic words and resurrect a “Blood Queen” named Nimue (Milla Jovovich), who was chopped into pieces and scattered across the British countryside by King Arthur himself.
Wait, wait — it gets weirder. Hellboy is then brought to England to participate in an old-timey giant hunt using lances attached to proton packs, only to find himself having breakfast with a spirit medium named Alice (Sasha Lane, “Hearts Beat Loud”) and teaming up with Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), who’s got a demon inside of him. It’s up to them to stop Nimue from killing all the humans to achieve her goal of making the world a safer place for monsters.
That’s an idea with which, Hellboy is forced to admit, he actually agrees. Hellboy has spent a lot of his life in isolation, using idiosyncratic humor in an effort to put fearful humans at ease. It’s hard to save the day when all the other good guys panic and shoot at you when you get out of your car.
At the emotional center of this new “Hellboy” is Hellboy’s relationship with his adoptive father, Professor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane). (And his name is pronounced “Broom,” by the way.) They’re not adorable; they’re big jerks who happen to love each other. McShane tenderly shaves his son’s devil horns down to fashionable stubs but also subscribes to the “man up” school of fatherhood. When Hellboy finds himself succumbing to his soulful side, they have a spirited and macho argument about the deeper meaning of their monster-hunting enterprise, and it’s a genuine moment in an otherwise bizarre motion picture.
Neil Marshall’s “Hellboy” doesn’t have the style and grace of del Toro’s rendition. His hero is a working-class schmo with a bad sense of humor and a big heart, shoved — whether he likes it or not — into practically every horror subgenre, one right after another, often without warning. Many of those side-quests are truly disturbing. This “Hellboy” is R-rated and frequently grotesque, with faces ripped off and children hanging from meat hooks. It’s like an issue of “Fangoria” exploded, and all the movies in it got splattered onto the storyboard of a superhero flick.
The cinematography by Lorenzo Senatore (“Megan Leavey”) may seem to lack a distinctive aesthetic, but in the end it serves “Hellboy” just fine. Marshall’s film flits from one bizarre set piece to another, and the visual choices that befit, say, a nightmarish lunch with Baba Yaga don’t necessarily work for a luchador fight. Every visual choice in Marshall’s “Hellboy” has to allow for a world in which anything is possible — and for Hellboy, commonplace — even if it clashes with everything else. Senatore’s visual decisions, unfettered by stylistic artifice, create that world.
Harbour and McShane are less lovable than their del Toro counterparts but equally convincing and valid. Harbour never tries to look “cool”; he actually looks like he’s trying to look normal. His humor carries a slight air of desperation, a defense mechanism that doesn’t always work. Meanwhile, McShane plays a real bastard of a man who loves his son anyway, who can’t even get through a chunk of exposition without swearing a lot. They’re perfect for each other.
Where “Hellboy” falls massively short of perfection is its visual effects, which range from awe-inspiring to “this would have been embarrassing in 2003.” Every monster and locale is imaginatively conceived, but it’s possible that the budget was pushed to the breaking point, with some scenes given priority over others. One creature looks like a rejected VFX test of Bebop from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” but the gigantic Clive Barker-inspired leviathans that spring forth from the ground are truly glorious. Even the practical effects are hit and miss: Harbour looks fine in his makeup, but his horns wobble if you touch them too hard.
In the end, that’s part of the charm. Neil Marshall’s “Hellboy” is a wellspring of creativity, a major superhero movie made for hardcore R-rated horror fans, overflowing with humor and action and scares. It’s ambitious and low-key at the same time, knowing full well that its target audience isn’t the mainstream blockbuster demographic that demands structure or even sanity. It’s specifically designed to attract a cult audience who will love it to pieces and turn it into a long-lasting treasure, no doubt destined to survive after more crowd-pleasing pabulum has been relegated to the bottom shelf of history.