Written by Monster Awareness Month team member Orrin Grey
Guillermo del Toro is my favorite director. This probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following along, since I talked about his Cronos for Vampire Awareness Month and his The Devil’s Backbone for Ghost Appreciation Month. And later this month I’ll be finishing off my hat trick of his Spanish-language films by tackling Pan’s Labyrinth.
But long before I was a fan of Guillermo del Toro, I was a fan of Hellboy, and Hellboy’s creator Mike Mignola. When it was announced that del Toro was going to direct a movie version of Hellboy, I knew that there wasn’t anyone else more perfect for the job. Much like the oft-repeated story of Mignola and del Toro sitting down to discuss the movie and both saying “Ron Perlman has to play Hellboy,” I don’t think there’s anyone else who could get behind the camera and make this movie work as well as it does. That said, and while Hellboy is one of my favorite movies for a lot of reasons, as a fan of the source material first my relationship with any adaptation of it is always going to be somewhat troubled.
While del Toro’s Hellboy is closer to the comics than anyone could reasonably have hoped, it still deviates from them in innumerable ways. Some are things that I wish had been handled differently, others are ones that I understand the necessity of in translating the material from the comic book page to the big screen. Some, like the expansion of Professor Bruttenholm’s character, are probably actually an improvement. (The professor is now a major character in the comics, albeit only in “flashback” stories, but at the time the movie was made his presence had up ‘til then been fairly minor.)
What del Toro does achieve, though, regardless of my feelings about any of the changes, or his interpretations of the characters, or whatever, is to take a weird property that almost anyone could screw up and bring to it all the same love and attention to detail that highlights his Spanish-language films. In his commentary track (which, as always, is well worth listening to) del Toro says that Hellboy is the movie that merged his own artistic sensibilities as displayed by films like Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone with big-budget (comparatively) Hollywood filmmaking.
But this isn’t Hellboy Appreciation Month, nor even Movie Appreciation Month. This is Monster Awareness Month, and there’s no better movie to appreciate monsters in than Hellboy. In the commentary track for The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro says that he thinks horror is important because it teaches you to love “the Other,” the monster. And del Toro’s love for monsters is obvious in every inch of Hellboy. Not only are most of the main characters technically monsters, but in this movie the monster actually gets the girl!
The enemy monsters are at least as impressive as the good guys, though, from the beautifully executed Sammael (one of the most impressive monsters in the history of film) to a clockwork Nazi zombie to the giant Lovecraftian Behemoth at the end. (I don’t think I’m giving too much away here, it’s in the animated menu on the DVD.) The influences of Mike Mignola’s designs are certainly evident in the creatures, but so is del Toro’s unique vision. And of course there are plenty of scenes where Hellboy fights one or more of the above. Del Toro says that they wanted the monster battles to be Harryhausen-esque and, in fact, that they asked Harryhausen to be a consultant on the film, but he declined because he perceived modern movies as being “too violent.” What he did leave del Toro with was a nugget of wisdom that serves the movie’s monsters very well, that “most people animate monsters acting like monsters; monsters should always be thought of like animals.” This Harryhausen-esque approach gives the monsters (both good and bad) a sense of character that such creatures have rarely had since the days of stop motion, and also makes for some of the most satisfying knock-down, drag-out creature action ever put on film.
Whatever its imperfections, Hellboy is a big, boisterous celebration of monsters of all stripes, and about as perfect a movie for Monster Awareness Month as could be asked for.