"What is it that makes a man a man? Is it his origins, the way things start? Or is it something else, something harder to describe?"
-Professor Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt)
Hellboy creator Mike Mignola said that he made the character as his one attempt to toss in every single thing he'd ever wanted to do in a comic. He also said he never expected to be drawing the title 10 years on. And if that's true, then he must never have anticipated just how well received Hellboy has been as a character would become, and how influential it would be with other comic creators and a filmmaker by the name of Guillermo Del Toro.
Hellboy tells the story of a demon brought to earth in the 1940's via a failed Nazi occult experiment. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is found by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), and raised as a warrior for good. He is, effectively, a monster who fights monsters. He's aided by Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), an amphibious telepath, and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who has pyrokinetic abilities. The film shows us these crazy characters through the eyes of new recruit John Meyers (Rupert Evans). He arrives just in time for the reappearance of the man who brought Hellboy into this dimension, who just happens to be Rasputin (yes, the famous Russian Rasputin, here played by Karl Roden). Rasputin is an agent working on behalf of the Ogdru Jahad, a Lovecraftian-collection of tentacled gods who can bring about hell on Earth, if only Rasputin can put all the right pieces in place. But of course, Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) have something to say about that.
I've been a big fan of the Hellboy comic for years. Mignola's comic is a dense amalgamation of old myths, new mythology, Lovecraftian creatures, and pulp stories. The result is a moody, thrilling series with humor interjected in just the right places. This combination had a big effect of Guillermo Del Toro, who has a voracious artistic appetite. So when Del Toro became the director of the film, it was a match made in heaven. Watching the special features, it becomes clear that the two were partners throughout the entire production, which means the film should be a comic fan's wet dream. And in my case, it is!
Guillermo Del Toro has recently got a lot of press for Pan's Labyrinth, which despite having so many elements familiar to Del Toro fans, was treated like a breakthrough work. But in my mind, Del Toro's been breaking through cinematic dullness since his very first feature, Cronos. Even his more populist works, such as Mimic or Blade II, showed a man of considerable talent behind the camera. And his more lauded works, including The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, have given him an air of respectability with critics. Personally, I've enjoyed every single one of his films, and he's one of my favorite modern filmmakers. He's also the perfect man to make Hellboy, due to his sense of style and love for the source material. He understands what made the comics great, and exactly how to translate those factors to the screen, while making the production feel like more than just a straight copy.
And as much as Del Toro brought to the picture, it never would have worked without Ron Perlman. The two worked together on Cronos so they already had a solid working relationship. On top of that, Perlman has a lot of experience working through prosthetics (remember the TV series Beauty and the Beast? He played the Beast). His performance shines right through the makeup. But most of all, he has the right demeanor for Hellboy. That kind of, "been there, done that" blase attitude that belies how much he actually cares about those he considers to be his family. And he's so evocative. When Perlman says, "Oh, crap!" it means more than when most actors deliver whole monologues.
Although Ron Perlman is the essential element, that does not mean the rest of the cast is simply window-dressing. Veteran actor John Hurt plays Hellboy's surrogate father Professor Bruttenholm (pronounced "Broom"). Hurt's pedigree elevates the film beyond being yet another comic book adaptation. Rupert Evans as Meyers provides the audience with a human connection to all the craziness that goes on throughout the movie. Selma Blair is her normal laconic self, but she works. Jeffrey Tambor is absolutely hilarious as the Bureau chief. And Doug Jones plays Abe Sapien to perfection. He looks a lot less human than Hellboy, so that's no easy feat. Unfortunately, he doesn't provide the voice of Abe. That role was given to David Hyde Pierce. And while I love Pierce, hearing Jones do the voice of Abe in Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms makes me eager to see him give a full performance in the upcoming Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.
Hellboy stands as one of the best, and one of the most faithful comic book adaptations to date. Everything about it works, from the cast to the crew to the set and costume designs. It's like Mignola's drawings have jumped off the page. But at the same time, Guillermo Del Toro infuses the flick with his special brand of Mexican mayhem. I've seen the film countless times now, and I have no doubt I will see it countless more. It's just so much fun.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Sony Pictures presents Hellboy in a 1.85:1 1080p transfer, encoded with AVC. For the most part, the image looks fantastic. Most of the film is shot either with a lot of darkness or a specific color dominating the screen. The transfer has no problems with such sharp imagery. Hellboy's red pops with bleeding. Abe's blues are deep. There's quite a bit of detail, especially on the make-up, where you can see Hellboy's scar and light pockmarks across his face and chest. The computer generated effects hold up fairly well. The ones that look bad looked just as bad in the theater, so it's not as if this transfer has done them any worse. I did have some minor issues, including posterization during a few fade-outs and most noticeably during the opening as the camera pulls through the storm clouds. I was pleasantly surprised that despite my best efforts, I could not find any trace of edge enhancement. Despite the few issues, the overall picture is stable, solid, and very impressive.
Sony continues its track record of offering uncompressed 5.1 PCM tracks on its Blu-ray discs, and Hellboy is all the better for it. The film's bombastic effects sound fantastic, especially during the fight sequences. The creature sounds are especially creative. Whenever Abe's around, things sound decidedly...squishy. And when Hellboy decides to wail on someone, you feel it. Marco Beltrami's memorable score also gets the deluxe treatment, with a very pleasing reproduction of the score recording. For some unknown reason, Sony also offers a PCM German track, as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 English, French, and German tracks.
The version of Hellboy presented here is Guillermo Del Toro's preferred director's cut. It has roughly ten more minutes of footage. On DVD, the director's cut is available on a 3-disc special edition that's teeming with extras. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray disc does not port all the extras over. Everything we do get is of high quality, but there are a mass of excellent supplements missing, including the cast commentary with Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, and Jeffrey Tambor. Other than trailers, none of the extras are in high definition.
Commentary with Director Guillermo Del Toro: Guillermo Del Toro gives a scene-specific commentary that's exclusive to the director's cut. I could listen to this guy all day. A good portion of the commentary is spent discussing all the influences that led Del Toro to Hellboy, with things as far ranging as pulp comics, Jorge Luis Borges, and Sherlock Holmes. He talks at length about Mike Mignola and his work, and how it was to work with Mignola. Of course he also talks about Perlman, Tambor, and the rest of the cast. He speaks nonstop from opening credits to the beginning of the end credits, and he is endlessly interesting.
Hellboy - The Seeds of Creation: A two and a half hour documentary about everything Hellboy. Starts with Mignola talking about the genesis of the comic, and goes all the way through to the theatrical premiere. On the way, we see make-up tests, creature designs and models, on the set footage, and more. The documentary goes into almost every detail of the production, although there isn't much rhyme or reason to the way the information is delivered. One minute they may be talking about doing wire work, and the next about CGI effects, and the next about how great it is to work with John Hurt. Still, the lack of segmentation keeps things interesting, because you don't know what you'll be seeing next. Essential viewing for any Hellboy fan.
Deleted Scenes with Director Commentary: Three scenes, two of which appear in a shortened form in the director's cut. There is a very short sequence showing Ilsa and Kroenen's trek to revive Rasputin, then a scene where Meyers brings Liza back to the B.P.R.D. in a cab, and finally the scene where Rasputin receives the stone that features in the film's climax. Del Toro provides optional commentary for all three.
VFX How-To's: A look at several of the larger visual effects shots. Slightly redundant after we got a lot of this information from "Seeds of Creation," but there are still things here not shown in the other documentary.
Make-up and Lighting Tests: Del Toro gives commentary to several make-up tests done to figure out how to best light Hellboy for maximum effect. Many of the tests were shown in "Seeds of Creation," but Del Toro's commentary sheds new light (pun intended) on them.
Scott McCloud's Guide To Understanding Comics: Probably the pre-eminent scholar in the comic book field, Scott McCloud gives a crash course on comics as an art form. McCloud imparts a lot of interesting information without becoming boring or feeling rushed. More essential viewing here.
Trailers: Not for Hellboy, mind you, but trailers for upcoming movies on Blu-ray, and Ghost Rider. I suppose Sony figured promoting Ghost Rider made sense, seeing as how it's another movie made from a comic, but the big difference is that Hellboy is a study in how to adapt comics well, whereas Ghost Rider is an embarrassment in every possible way.
Hellboy is just plain badass. Guillermo Del Toro melded his cinematic style with Mike Mignola's unique mythology to create a wholly enjoyable thrill ride. Ron Perlman IS Hellboy, and the rest of the cast support him ably. This Blu-ray disc boasts very impressive picture and sound. Sadly, not all of the supplements from the 3-disc director's cut DVD have been ported over, meaning that fans of the movie will need to hold on to that great set. But even without a full complement of extras, this disc still has enough to warrant a purchase. Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.