Ever felt like you didn’t belong? Try being Hellboy for a day.
Technically, the dude’s a demon—a big, red monster who looks like he crawled straight out of a medieval woodcarving or, maybe, the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. He’d have horns, too, if he didn’t contientiously file/clip/saw them off. Wouldn’t want to scare the kids, y’know.
But despite his diabolical lineage, the guy’s not all that interested in raising literal hell. Oh, sure, he may drink more than is strictly healthy. He has quite the infernal potty mouth, too. And his sense of humor … well, let’s just say if barbed wisecracks were enough to land you in Dante’s Inferno, he and Ricky Gervais would be trading jabs in circle seven. But he doesn’t want to follow in his flaming father’s hoofed footsteps. He’s got other goals in mind.
See, Hellboy’s adopted: Professor Trevor Bruttenholm raised the demon since he was but a mere imp. And while Bruttenholm might not have earned a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug, he did what he could to raise this demon to manhood—encouraging the guy to look out for humanity, instead of looking for ways to destroy and enslave it.
Now Hellboy and his pops work together at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, an organization tasked with stomping out all manner of infernal, supernatural and Lovecraftian threats. Bruttenholm’s the brains and Hellboy’s the brawn. Together—along with plenty of other curious operatives—they’ve helped to keep Earth from being overrun by gnomes or frog-monsters.
But now they face a threat that outstrips anything they’ve faced before. Seems a witch named Nimue—who was hacked into pieces by King Arthur a good 1,500 years ago—is trying to pull herself (literally) back together again. If she succeeds, she hopes to wipe out humanity with a fearsome plague and to remake the world into a safe place for all manner of critters who’ve been locked in the shadows for the last couple of millennia: goblins. Faeries. Things that go bump in the night. Demons.
And boy howdy, she’d sure love to enlist Hellboy into her services.
Meanwhile, Hellboy’s own Gehennic genes are causing new problems, too. Seems like folks in the know believe that Bruttenholm’s little boy has been prophesied to bring about the end of the world. The only way to prevent it, some believe, is to bring about the end of Hellboy.
So let’s get this right: Hellboy’s trying to defeat a woman who wants him and trying to save people who want to kill him. Feels like a case of demonic dissonance. Something’s got to give.
Forget that Hellboy’s a demon for a minute: If you squint just right, his backstory is a great illustration on the beauty of adoption.
Like many a foster or adoptive parent, Bruttenholm takes in a child with a really difficult background and raises him as his own—giving the red lad hope and opportunities that he never would’ve had otherwise. And while Bruttenholm certainly could’ve tried to give the demon a better name, the professor did give him a sense of morality and emotional well-being. In fact, Hellboy’s become one of humanity’s most famous protectors against monstrous and supernatural threats. He’s saved countless lives. It’s a nice illustration of what parenting can mean to a kid in need—and the dividends it can pay. “Being your father was the best decision I ever made,” Bruttenholm says.
Also encouraging: The level of trust we see in some of Hellboy’s closest associates. Sure, they’ve heard that he’s named in über-dark prophecies. But Alice, a woman Hellboy saved from faeries when she was an infant, believes she knows Hellboy’s character better than any ol’ prophecy. As for Bruttenholm, he raised the kid in spite of those prophecies, insisting that free will is more important than “destiny.” “You’re a man, a good one. Act like it,” he tells Hellboy. “You decide for yourself.”
In the original Hellboy comics (and emphasized a wee bit more in the earlier movies) the titular character is raised Catholic. This film has no references to Hellboy’s faith, but there are plenty to be found elsewhere.
Christianity carries some supernatural oomph in the world of Hellboy. Nimue’s body was cut up into several pieces, with each piece locked in a box and sent to a different part of England. Her head was placed in a “casket” sealed by a incantation from a cleric, and in turn it can only be opened by a “man of God.” A man totes a vial made from “Judas’ silver,” augmented by the blood of a saint and blessed by the Pope—the only weapon, he believes, that might kill Hellboy.
Nimue’s forces reminded me quite a bit of the White Witch’s militia from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—creatures of legend up to no good and, quite possibly, infernal to boot. The movie sometimes feints toward a more morally indifferent Christian/pagan divide (King Arthur, we’re told, broke a truce between the human and faerie world, and some critters say they simply want a place in the sun). But mostly, the way that these monsters manifest themselves is truly monstrous and sometimes—visually at least—diabolical. They crawl out from cracks in the ground where we see flames below. (As a toddler, Hellboy himself is shown crawling out of just such an infernal opening as part of a mysterious Nazi rite.) Nimue says that she’s hoping to destroy the world as it is in order to create a “new Eden,” but only for her kind. She also threatens to “baptize this world in blood.”
We see witches in action, including the famed Slavic bogeywoman Baba Yaga. Merlin makes an appearance or two; when he’s revived after centuries, he assumes that Hellboy has come to take his soul away to Hellboy’s presumed infernal master.
We also hear a great deal about the prophecy involving Hellboy. Human seers and psychics use crystal balls, and one such woman allows recently dead folks to communicate through her. (She also seems to have the power to beat spirit creatures up.)
Monstrous entities rise from the dead. A monster invades an abbey dedicated to St. Sebastian. St. Paul’s Cathedral is the site of a major battle, and much of it gets pulverized. We hear about mysterious, occult-tinged clubs. Someone suffers a “psychic migrane.” Hellboy fights a vampire, whom his father says was “beyond salvation.” We see pentagrams and other occult-looking symbols. A curse is hurled.
In flashback, we see Hellboy’s birth mother and father together during Hellboy’s apparent conception. Sexual activity isn’t depicted, but the woman is clearly unclothed, and we see part of her breast.
Nimue wears a seriously clingy, low-cut, cleavage-revealing outfit. Baba Yaga’s outfit also reveals quite a bit; and the hag lays a massive, slimy, disgusting kiss on Hellboy. There may be an intimation that Alice puffs out her chest for Hellboy to show him how much she’s grown up since he last saw her.
When Bruttenholm asks Hellboy if he’s heard of the Osiris Club, Hellboy assumes he’s talking about a “strip club in Jersey.” (He’s not.) Someone refers to witches as “sluts.”
Hellboy likes big coats, but he doesn’t think much of shirts. As such, his red torso is usually at least partially visible.
Hellboy may be one of the most insanely grotesque movies I’ve ever seen.
Early on, Hellboy and others battle three giants who feast on human marrow. We see those giants tear the head off one man (it floats in a river), and we also glimpse a pile of bloody, squishy, dismembered corpses. When Hellboy gets into the fray, he cleaves the head of one giant, shish-ka-bobs the neck of another, pushes his fist into a monster’s eye, and lops off arms and legs with some abandon.
It’s really just a bloody appetizer for the rest of the movie’s utterly salacious reliance on gore. One creature with spikey legs impales humans as he walks, slowly pushing the corpses up to its knees. Another soul is yanked apart by the legs like a wishbone. A third has his jawbone pulled off.
Heads are hacked away from bodies. People are torn apart in a dizzying number of fashions. Corpses are treated with as much care as hamburger. Two unfortunate witches are psychically crushed to death—their bones apparently twisting and breaking under their skin. One creature is shrunk to near nothing before his body pops like a bloody balloon. Alice threatens Hellboy with a shotgun filled with “angels’ bones” aimed at his privates. Something’s impaled on a wrestling ring post.
Hellboy is stabbed and skewered several times. People and monsters are hit, kicked and thrown around a lot. Someone’s stabbed with a massive tusk. People are shot and killed quite often. A man rapidly turns into a dusty skeleton. Someone nearly dies from a monstrous thorn. In visions, we see a demon slash and hew scores of humans with a flaming sword. A tree bleeds. A scorpion stings a drunk Hellboy. “That’s OK, little guy,” the demon says. “You’re just doing what you’re doing.”
Baba Yaga is an incredibly monstrous creature (she enjoys skittering around like a spider, often with her pelvis thrust toward the ceiling). She makes a deal to pluck out one of Hellboy’s eyes (to replace one he took, though he finds a loophole and backs out of the deal). She also tries to feed him soup made from human children: We see a hand floating in broth, and Hellboy sees her pantry filled with small, hanging corpses. (Earlier, she seems to snack on children’s bones.) We see a supernatural disease kill people—eating away their faces and parts of their bodies like a teaming legion of insects. A news report informs us that casualties in Great Britain may number 100,000 in just a couple of hours unless it’s stopped.
Nimue, still partly disassembled, channel surfs using her disembodied arm and hand. She’s painfully stitched back together by a bevy of wrinkled, deformed crones. Her face is also partially blown off before regenerating.
About 30 f-words join 10 s-words. We also hear frequent uses of vulgarities such as “a–,” “d–n,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–k” and “crap.” God’s name is misused about six times, half of those with the word “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused three times.
After one of his friends dies, Hellboy gets drunk in a Mexican tavern. (We later learn he’s been gone for three weeks.) He drinks by a gravesite, too, speaking to someone in a way that indicates he’s obviously inebriated. He bypasses an offer for wine, though.
People lie about their motives.
The films have plenty of weaknesses, but I have a curious appreciation for Guillermo del Toro’s original 2004 version of Hellboy and its sequel. In part, that’s because of the curiously spiritual questions lurking at the movies’ edges: How far can God’s grace extend? Could even a demon—who’s made that way through no fault of his own—find some form of redemption?
We can find hints of that question in this remake, too. But it comes with a full nine circles of problems.
Del Toro’s two Hellboy movies were PG-13. This version, directed by Neil Marshall, is R-rated and makes the most of it. Or, rather, the least. Yes, there’s lots and lots and LOTS of gore. But all the movie’s gratuitous grotesquerie winds up hurting the film—and that’s not just Plugged In’s point of view.
“The funny thing about overabundant gore is that it loses its potential for shock when viscera is more common than anything suspenseful,” writes Alan Zilberman of The Washington Post. “There are only so many times you can be horrified to see someone being torn in two before you get bored and start thinking about what all that fake blood might smell like,” opines Gizmodo’s Charles Pulliam-Moore. And while del Toro’s two Hellboy movies log in at Rotten Tomatoes with 81% and 86% “freshness” ratings, respectively, this version stands at 13%. That’s not just rotten: That’s as decayed and putrified as one of the movie’s many, many corpses.
More isn’t necessarily better, and that’s especially true when it comes to more blood, gore and language. This Hellboy should go back to the hole from whence it came.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.