Guillermo del Toro is a Hollywood filmmaker who, in public at least, seems not to take himself and his assignments terribly seriously – although, back in his home country of Mexico, he made his best movie in the deadly serious The Devil's Backbone (2001).
In America, del Toro tends to align himself with unpretentious jokesters like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, especially when such idols tackle the genre of horror-comedy and develop a cinematic style akin to comic book graphics.
But del Toro is too modest for his own good. The marvellous Hellboy shows us why he should be regarded as the new John Carpenter – in other words, a filmmaker as much at home with high drama and its complex resonances as with the self-conscious flash and dazzle of pop genres.
Hellboy, based on a comic book series by Mike Mignola, covers a lot of ground in a fast-paced, colourful way – del Toro never losing sight of the small, expressive details that bring a place, a character or an incident alive.
It begins with the early career of Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) as he grapples with the implications of a cosmic portal that can unleash the Seven Gods of Chaos into our world.
Bruttenholm ends up nurturing a secret defence force comprising several mighty strange creatures: Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, with the voice of David Hyde Pierce), who spends most of his time in water; Liz (Selma Blair), who has a tendency to burst into a living fireball whenever she gets riled up; and the hyper-muscular Hellboy (Ron Perlman), an anti-social and morally ambiguous character, since he originally hailed from the Dark Side.
Hellboy and his comrades must go into battle not only against an ever-spawning army of evil creatures, but also the historic Rasputin (Karel Roden). When the scenery starts crumbling, a whining government bureaucrat (Jeffrey Tambor) is only a pesky nuisance – and a sympathetic newcomer to the team, Bruttenholm's successor John (Rupert Evans), has a long way to go to win Hellboy's respect.
This film effortlessly mixes high melodrama, gruesome horror, elaborate stunts, and even a dose of adolescent-style romance – as the accursed Hellboy sulks about, trailing his beloved but troubled Liz on a date.
Del Toro is a true fan boy when it comes to movies, and he knows he shares this sensibility with the most devoted part of his audience. In a zany gag which is surely a first in cinema history, he inserts a decorative pile of discarded typewriters into the décor of Hellboy – purely for the amusement of those alert viewers who remember the presentation of a similar moment among the outtakes on the DVD of the director's previous Blade II (2002).
Like in The Devil's Backbone, del Toro wrings a terrific effect from a shift in the voice-over narration from the start of the film to end – here it begins as the reminiscence of one character and concludes as another's. But even better than that is the final image – a delirious conflagration which substitutes an ode to personal passion for the New Messiah symbolism that concurrently and disturbingly drove I, Robot (2004) and The Chronicles of Riddick (2004).
© Adrian Martin August 2004