It’s time for Birthday Week to go to the movies! Continuing my obsessive look at all things Hellboy this week, I thought it high time I took a look at the movie that, for me, started it all. Of course, the comics pre-date the movie by more than a decade, but I wasn’t familiar with them before seeing Big Red in action here…
The movie is basically the origin story of Hellboy, picking out a lot of the threads that we see in the comics, and building on the Seed of Destruction storyline to give a satisfying main story overall.
We start with the Tarmagant Island incident in 1944, with Rasputin opening a portal and bringing forth Hellboy from another dimension, then we fast-forward to the modern day and the BPRD, with a new recruit John T Myers joining the team to work as Hellboy’s liaison. Very quickly, the action moves to a museum break-in where an ancient daemon known as Sammael has been awakened by Rasputin and his disciples, Ilsa and Kroenen. Sammael goes on a rampage, and while the Bureau believe it to have been killed, in actual fact two more have been birthed from its carcass, thanks to Rasputin’s curse of multiplicity.
Myers works to bring Liz back to the team, as she had previously left due to mistrusting her own powers of pyrokinesis. The team are sent into the sewers to attempt to destroy the Sammael eggs, and while most of the agents that accompany them are killed, they also manage to capture Kroenen. In reality, Kroenen had given himself up by feigning death and, once inside the Bureau, manages to kill Professor Bruttenholm. The Bureau is taken over by FBI agent Tom Manning, who directs a mission to Moscow to end the Sammael threat and, hopefully, that of Rasputin and his followers.
In Moscow, the team tracks down the nest in Rasputin’s mausoleum, and while Liz manages to incinerate the eggs, they are captured. Rasputin sucks out Liz’s soul from her body, and uses it to cause Hellboy to use his stone right hand to awaken the Ogdru-Jahad and bring about the apocalypse. Myers manages to reach out to Hellboy, however, reminding him that Bruttenholm raised him to defy his destiny and choose his own path. Hellboy stabs Rasputin, whose death throes release a tentacled monster that Hellboy manages to defeat by detonating a belt of grenades inside the beast.
For me, this movie really encapsulates the feeling of Hellboy from the comics. We’ve got the half-demon wandering about in graveyards and reanimating corpses, we’ve got him hunting disgusting daemon creatures – it’s really fantastic. While Ron Perlman does steal the show as the titular character, Doug Jones as Abe Sapien, and Selma Blair as Liz Sherman, also have their parts to play – though due to going through the backstory, I think Liz is definitely the more short-changed of the two. John Hurt’s Professor Bruttenholm lends a dignified presence to the movie, though I think it’s really the villains that provide so much of the enjoyment here.
Rasputin is quite the character, and Karel Roden’s performance is quite chilling at times, especially when he’s in his suit doing his puppet-master routine. Ladislav Beran as Kroenen is a whole different kettle of fish, though – creepy doesn’t even begin to cover it. Beran has a fluid grace that really sets your teeth on edge, and when he’s gliding down those stairs in Bruttenholm’s office… urgh, gives me chills to just think about it!
Kroenen is definitely the character that benefits the most from his movie incarnation. Everybody comes over from the page to the screen fairly similarly, but for Rasputin’s lieutenant, we have a sort of amalgamation of a couple of the comic book characters. He’s part Nazi scientist, with his surgical compulsion and all, and an expert assassin – a less-mad Red Skull, I suppose. He’s the embodiment of almost the entire Nazi scientist enclave that exists within the comics, and I love how del Toro has managed to distill so much down into the character. Truly wonderful.
Something should also be said for the way the story is handled. It is often said that this movie takes Seed of Destruction as its starting point, but the Sammael threat is so far removed from that of the frog monsters that I don’t really think we can talk about them together. The story is an original one that nevertheless takes the essence of the comic book story and makes it work.
I’ve not seen the new movie, but while this one exists, I don’t think there’s a need for it. I’ve read the film was a flop, which is a shame, as I think the Hellboy universe really would benefit from a big screen showing, branching off into the BPRD proper and all, but part of me wonders if this failure might then allow for del Toro and Perlman to come back for the Hellboy 3 that we’ve heard teased over the years?