In this edition of The Silver Lining, we’ll be covering Neil Marshall’s ill-fated comic-book adaptation, Hellboy.
From Sin City to Umbrella Academy, Dark Horse Comics has always lived up to its name by betting on oddball titles and unusual creators. While there’s no shortage of iconic characters that were first introduced in the pages of DHC, I’d argue that one of their most recognizable contributions to popular culture would have to be Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. A paranormal investigator that also happens to be a grumpy demon, the horned face of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense became a respected figure in the world of independent comics.
And with Blade and X-Men kicking off a comic-book movie boom back in the late 90s/early 2000s, it makes sense that Hollywood would eventually bring Hellboy to the big screen with a couple of adaptations helmed by Guillermo Del Toro. These movies aren’t exactly accurate representations of their source material, only adapting the broad strokes of Mignola’s stories as they focus on character moments and apocalyptic shenanigans, but they garnered a surprisingly large following due to Del Toro’s unique vision.
However, with the final film in the proposed trilogy becoming stuck in production hell for nearly a decade and comic-book movies turning into a more lucrative business, the studio decided that it was time to bring Hellboy back with a brand-new team. This time around, the project would be based on a script handed in by Mignola himself, with Andrew Cosby and Christopher Golden contributing to the story. The end product borrowed from a handful of pre-existing comic-book arcs involving Hellboy’s royal heritage and the return of the vampire queen Nimue, all in an attempt to please fans of the comic.
This reboot would also be a hard-R action/horror experience more in line with the original stories, so the studio hired celebrated genre filmmaker Neil Marshall to direct the picture due to his experience with hyper-violent creature features like Dog Soldiers and The Descent. Of course, this bold new vision meant that the main roles would have to be recast, so the team chose Stranger Things’ ever-lovable David Harbour as their new hero from hell. Ian McShane took over for the late John Hurt as Hellboy’s surrogate father Trevor Bruttenholm, and horror queen Milla Jovovich joined the cast as our main antagonist.
When the first trailer dropped, boosted by a stunning remix of Billy Idol’s cover of Mony Mony, the internet was abuzz with speculation. While nothing could ever top the endearing humanity behind Del Toro’s films, who could resist an R-rated adaptation that promised to bring Hellboy back to his demonic roots?
SO WHAT WENT WRONG?
Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy movies were never massive hits, but they both managed to at least break even. This wasn’t the case with the 2019 reboot, as the film was both a critical and box office bomb. Raking in a mere $55 million on a $50 million budget (which is actually a loss when you factor in theater cuts and marketing costs) and scoring a measly 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, this obviously wasn’t the return to form that Mignola and the studio had envisioned.
In fact, most media outlets chastised the film as a general waste of talent both in front of and behind the cameras. While comic fans appreciated the nods to Hellboy’s expanded mythology, the majority of critics accused the flick’s disjointed story of failing to reach the heights of Del Toro’s movies. Audiences also just couldn’t connect with Harbour after Perlman’s iconic portrayal of the character despite improved makeup effects and a more comics-accurate performance.
Of course, many of the film’s faults are due to a considerable amount of behind-the-scenes drama, with the script being constantly rewritten during production as well as conflicting interests. There were several spats between Marshall and the producers, with crew members being fired just to remind the director that he was simply a hired pawn and could be replaced at any moment, as well as frequent interruptions during rehearsals – not to mention plenty of post-production tinkering.
Marshall wasn’t even allowed to be involved with the film’s making-of documentary featured in the home video release, and his cut of the film was discarded in favor of the producers’ vision for the reboot. In recent interviews, Marshall has gone on record saying that he considers Hellboy the worst filmmaking experience of his career, claiming that his original goal was to use his genre experience to make a genuine horror movie, but he was instead relegated to studio lackey and not allowed to interfere with the film’s confusing script.
While most of the plot elements were lifted directly from the comics, these stories worked better as a series of short-but-sweet yarns slowly leading up to an epic finale. Putting them all together in a 2-hour movie resulted in an aimless cinematic experience with a lot of heart but no direction. Ultimately, while this Hellboy was a lot closer to the character’s origins, the flick lacked the creative spirit that made Del Toro’s take on the material so endearing.
THE SILVER LINING
As a massive fan of Mignola’s work, I’ve always been torn about Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy adaptations. While I think they’re some of the director’s best work, featuring incredible monster designs and genuinely likable characters, I can understand why Mignola would like to see a more faithful (and scarier) translation of his stories on the big screen. 2019’s Hellboy didn’t quite hit that sweet spot as a satisfying adaptation and entertaining standalone film, but the movie still boasts a lot of individually great elements that I think are worth talking about.
For instance, I’d argue that the reboot’s casting is better than it has any right to be. Perlman remains the definitive live-action Hellboy and Doug Jones’ Abe Sapien is sorely missed, but there’s no denying that Harbour is one of the most charismatic actors in the industry and he’s clearly giving it his all despite absurd amounts of makeup and a script that doesn’t do him any favors. Milla Jovovich as Nimue was also an inspired choice, as her badass persona makes her the perfect fit for a vampiric antagonist. Even Ian McShane is great as his usual scruffy self, though the visual effects behind his ectoplasmic form are not among the film’s highlights.
The flick’s horror elements were also a breath of fresh air when compared to other comic-book movies, with the film boasting genuinely creepy designs like those kaiju-sized demons that invade London in the final act, as well as some surprisingly gory death scenes. Most of the large-scale destruction was achieved through CGI, but Neil Marshall’s eye for convincing practical effects still shines through during a few key moments (especially when Baba Yaga and the Gruagach are involved).
And while referencing the source material doesn’t necessarily make a movie better, fans of the comics are sure to appreciate the film’s plethora of references to Hellboy’s past adventures. From his stay in Mexico to a cameo by Thomas Haden Church as Lobster friggin’ Johnson, I admire the respect for Mignola’s stories even if the end result didn’t exactly reflect the tone of his original work.
At the end of the day, Hellboy is proof that doing things by the book doesn’t guarantee a successful movie, and neither does excessive studio meddling. While I can’t quite claim that this is an unfairly maligned classic, there are enough interesting elements here to make this 2019 reboot worth revisiting.
Watching a bad movie doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad experience. Even the worst films can boast a good idea or two, and that’s why we’re trying to look on the bright side with The Silver Lining, where we shine a light on the best parts of traditionally maligned horror flicks.