Last year, while sitting through the Rings cycle (not the Wagner; the Tolkien, all three Peter Jackson epics back-to-back in one day on a big screen), I talked to a young woman—someone who’d waited in line for 12 hours—who marveled: “Peter Jackson gets Tolkien. He’s a fan. The problem with George Lucas is that he’s not a fan of Star Wars, so he doesn’t understand what people who grew up with Star Wars love about Star Wars.” Now, I admit that this line of reasoning is counterintuitive: George Lucas, who created Star Wars, is a bad director for new Star Wars movies because he didn’t grow up loving Star Wars? That’s preposterous, right? Well, as a general principle it might be, but I think in this case she was dead-on: Lucas forgot the fan-boy enthusiasm that gave birth to the first Stars Wars movie, and so the material congealed into a series of ornate, digitized pageants. The highest praise I can bestow on Guillermo del Toro, the 39-year-old Mexican-born director and writer, is that he’s in a class with Peter Jackson as a fan-boy who gets it—a brilliant filmmaker who has a kind of metabolic connection to horror and sci-fi that helps him transform secondhand genre material into something deep and nourishing. Del Toro reaches into himself and finds the Wagnerian grandeur in schlock.
Which brings us to the delightful Hellboy (Sony), which is based on a clever comic-book series of the same name by Mike Mignola that fuses superheroics with the sort of mythic religious demonology of H.P. Lovecraft, plus a bit of Men in Black macho cheekiness. In the movie, Hellboy is a superhero who is literally the spawn of hell, ushered into this world by Nazis in collaboration with Rasputin the Mad Monk (Karel Roden), all of whom want to unleash the “Seven Gods of Chaos.” Lucky for us—ha! Take that, Nazi scum!— the Allies, led by Professor Bruttenholm, manage to shut down that infernal hell-portal before Rasputin can liberate more than one demon.
The lone arrival is a little red smiling thing with horns, a tail, and a taste for Baby Ruth candy bars. (The brand should do fine by the association.) The soldiers name him Hellboy, and the professor raises him—awkwardly—as his own son. And 60 years later he’s still sort of a kid, albeit a huge one played by the marvelous Ron Perlman in a big-jawed brick-red mask and with a giant squared-off stone hand. Hellboy lives in a vault in the basement of a top-secret FBI compound that exists to do battle with supernatural enemies. “There are things that go bump in the night,” explains the elderly professor (John Hurt) to John Myers (Rupert Evans), a young agent whom he’s grooming to take over Hellboy’s care and feeding. “And we are the ones who bump back.” First, Myers meets Abe Sapien, a superintelligent fishman (with the voice of David Hyde Pierce, sounding a little too much like C-3PO); then, he’s presented with a Hellboy comic book by way of introduction to the agency’s top monster-killer. “They never get the eyes right,” complains Hellboy, doing bicep curls with what looks like a few thousand pounds of weight.
Good superhero movies—from the first Batman (1989) to X-Men (2000)—are like superhero comics, in that they come from a distinct emotional place: that feeling of adolescent outsiderness that drives kids to live through … superhero comics. They inspire so many geeks (and geeks-at-heart) because they’re about turning one’s freakishness into an asset, making it a source of power and connection. Perlman’s Hellboy is a wonderful specimen: half macho cigar-chomping Marine, half melancholy monster who knows he (literally) doesn’t belong in this world. He sands down his horns to “fit in,” but he still can’t go out among humans; he’s estranged from his “dad”; and he has a girlfriend who keeps breaking up with him and pulling him back, adding another layer of adolescent confusion. She’s Liz Sherman, a fire-starter played by Selma Blair—looking dark and closed down, like one of those female poets with scars on her wrists. They’re a beautiful match, though, because Hellboy can’t be injured by her blueish infernos—which seems to me a great metaphor for all those incendiary relationships that actually, improbably work.
The plot of Hellboy? Well, Rasputin and the Nazis (and their undead, blade-wielding chief assassin) are back, along with these quasi-squidlike tentacled hellhounds that lay hundreds of eggs—but I’m not going to tell you this is a high-water mark in the art of film narrative. There’s a love-triangle involving Myers’ crush on the fiery Liz (he’s out of his league), and Jeffrey Tambor shows up as a pompous FBI bureaucrat who finally bonds with Hellboy—mid-battle—over their taste in stogies. Del Toro has a knack for comic interjections that deflate the superheroics without turning the whole thing into camp. But Hellboy is mostly a lot of rock-’em-sock-’em, computer-enhanced battle scenes between the seemingly indestructible Hellboy and the hardly less destructible Nazis and devil-beasts. As in his hyperkinetic Blade II (2002), del Toro goes in for the kind of hyperspeed, can-you-top-this blade work that tires you out as much as it turns you on; and I grew weary, too, of the monochromatic washes of color (mostly blue) meant to remind you of comic book frames. But the action is shocking without being especially graphic (it’s a PG-13), and the occasional rubbery special effect doesn’t hurt, because del Toro’s heart is in every image.
My hunch is that del Toro’s identification with Hellboy runs deep. His other movies, from his low-budget vampire classic Cronos (1993) to the studio-mangled Mimic (1997) to the tragic Spanish Civil War ghost story The Devil’s Backbone (2001) to Blade II are set in subterranean caverns and dank, rusting subway tunnels that evoke a morbid spiritual dislocation. Del Toro must feel at home down there, though, because no one makes outright monster movies in which the industrial grunge is so soulful. It might be hell on earth, but in del Toro’s hands it’s schlock heaven.