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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Hellboy Guillermo del Toro 2004

Sometimes You Feel Like a Freak, Sometimes You Don't

Considering the number of natural social handicaps with which I've been burdened (shy, gay, tall, brilliant, horribly disfigured), it's a wonder when I find myself in any situation when I actually feel normal. It's a sliding scale, I know: these days normal can mean anything from 2 1/2 kids and a minivan to vegan with 300 piercings, depending on your local standards. But I seriously thought that I would have to attend a convention of amputee Mormon vintage afghan fetishists with speech impediments to feel as downright well-adjusted as I felt after the sneak preview I attended of one of the most anticipated genre flicks of the year, Hellboy.

This is no small feat. Remember, I attend comics conventions and horror festivals. True, I have yet to attend a Renaissance Fair, which might blow the lid off everything, but the Hellboy screening was essentially a RenFair disguised in Gap corporate casual and plopped into the middle of Manhattan. The bizarre assortment of folks that were in the audience behind me were in stiff competition with the freaks in the film itself, which is impressive when you're talking about a movie starring a giant red monkey and an amphibious contortionist.

Needless to say, there were THRONGS of comic nerds. For those of you who have never seen a comic nerd out of its natural habitat (comics stores and suburban basements), they are a fascinating specimen to behold when allowed to wander among the unwashed masses. Upon my visit to the concession stand I was witness to a startling and ultimately endearing sight: 5 comic geeks were discussing how they were going to go about obtaining a snack for the film, and were strangely handicapped in their ability to accomplish what to most people would be a relatively simple task. After serreptitiously eavesdropping on their conversation for a full 15 minutes (I pretended to study the Mean Girls lobby display with a fierce academic intensity usually reserved for cave drawings or the Vietnam Wall), it became clear to me what the problem was: these adorable, awkward young men were entirely incapable of making group decisions without the assistance of a Dungeonmaster. They were unable to function as a social unit, a problem likely resulting from their having spent most of their young adult lives trapped in lockers.

First came the issue of finances. One gentleman only had two dollars, so it was decided that the group should pool their resources, capping the contribution to two dollars to avoid any imbalance of power, and purchase a communal snack. Settled. Then came the issue of the snack itself: which purchase would provide the most cost-effective snacking satisfaction? The idea was raised of buying one communal soft drink for all to share, and one communal bag of popped corn. This was met with some resistance: how were they to decide on the brand of soft drink? Coke was suggested -- "too hasty!", I thought, wincing as I pretended to study Lindsay Lohan's clavicles. Sure enough, this was shot down quickly: Coke has caffeine! And it was after seven o'clock! Sprite was suggested, but several members balked at the idea. It seemed that the boys had reached an impasse, and I shook my head sadly and prepared to move on.

The young lad in the Jonny the Homicidal Maniac t-shirt spoke up, stopping me in my tracks: what about getting TWO DRINKS? This threw the group into a state of such confusion that I honestly didn't think that they would be able to recover. I started sweating. Fortunately, it was discovered by the tallest member of the team that the Value Combo would allow them to obtain two beverages and a bag of popped corn and still stay under their limit. Seating arrangements were discussed to facilitate the sharing of the selected beverages, and the young man in the flannel (a sure sign of latent accounting talent) collected the money. The problem now was this: who was to approach the counter and purchase the snack? Eyes darted to posters for Scooby Doo Two, and hangnails were closely inspected for signs of infection -- it was clear that this was no easy task and that not one geek was willing to step up to the challenge. I waited for a twelve-sided die to be brandished, but none was available. It was finally decided that the Asian member would approach the counter, much against his will. But wait -- flannel-accountant furiously counted and re-counted singles, his brow furrowed: they were not out of the woods yet -- somehow he held in his hand... eleven dollars! This was impossible -- it flew in the face of all logic!! How could five people contributing two dollars apiece have produced eleven dollars?! The bills shook in his hands while his compatriots stood by silently, paralyzed with fear, useless. I dug my fingernails into my palms to the point of drawing blood: want though I might, I could not help them. Flannel man began to cry, his fingers trembling as the bills spilled onto the stained industrial carpeting below. Unable to stand the tension any longer, I returned to my seat and heaved a sigh of relief that this was not my problem.

After an introduction by Selma Blair and Ron Perlman, to the delight of fanboys and non-fanboys alike, Hellboy began.

An ambitious and very personal project on behalf of the filmmakers and cast, Hellboy is a sincere, funny, entertaining action film with heart. Despite its shortcomings (mainly some awkwardly executed stunts and WAY too much CGI), the film is beautifully realized, cleverly written and directed, and favors relationships and humanity over explosions and camera tricks (although, being an action film, there are plenty of those as well). And while the film may not succeed on every level, its sincerity and message (tolerance and the power of free will over any prescribed destiny) are refreshing, timely, and welcome.

Hellboy is the odd tale of a Nazi occult project gone horribly wrong, spawning a curious offspring: a red devil baby with horns and a giant stone hand, who is quickly adopted by the U.S. government as Hellboy (a charming name sure to kick "Dalton" and "Britney" to the curb for expecting couples). The cornerstone of the Bureau of Paranormal Activities' mission (to eliminate evil), Hellboy is raised to be a full-time crimesmasher by his adoptive father (a lovable-wacky-old-scientist type played by John Hurt), and is aided in his duties by the super-creepy Abe Sapien (a clairvouyant aquatic salamander-man voiced by David Hyde Pierce -- as well he should be) and Elizabeth Sherman (Selma Blair), a pyrokinetic whose very presence demands critics to refer to her as "hot" at least once (check). However, as we join the motley crew, things are in a turmoil: dad has cancer, Liz has taken off to acquiesce in an institution (a weekend in the country wouldn't have done the trick, I guess), and Hellboy has been grounded for escaping and getting caught on film by the media (again), which makes Bureau chief Jeffrey Tambor very unhappy, and bald. New recruit John Myers (the impossibly doe-eyed Rupert Evans) is assigned to babysit the big red galoot (who has a kitten fetish, and enormous appetite, and a penchant for filing down his horns to "blend") and play Felix to his Oscar.

The action begins pretty quickly: we've got a backstory on the big scarlet Daddy, a vaguely interesting villian (he turns out to be none other than Rasputin the Mad Monk, in a head-scratching turn of events that would send Boney M into a tizzy), and a truly terrifying henchman (a mechanical Nazi ninja swordsman with no face that will seriously get under your skin several times). In between chasing unfortunately digital monsters (something about hounds of hell or something) through New York City (Prague?) Hellboy tries to reconnect with Liz the pyro, who is really trying to distance herself from the nuclear (waste) family in order to learn to control her enormous power. And to be honest, despite the amount of time and money that was likely put into the chases, the fights, the explosions, and all that, the most enjoyable and effective parts of the film are really the ones that deal with the friendship/romantic triangle among Hellboy, Myers, and Liz -- particularly a great scene in which Hellboy spies on the two agents as they walk and have coffee, venting his angst to a small kid who happens upon him. This is a guy that you can relate to: he's insecure, he lies, he gets embarassed by his childish behavior, and he needs reminding every now and then that he's actually making a difference and on the right path by helping others with his great power. In fact, despite his redness and hugeness, he's enormously human, and this is what makes Hellboy a success.

Films about freak societies are not new, especially in the comic world. Over the past few years we saw another huge success with the X-Men series, which took a different (although also effective) tack: while the story of Xavier's band of misfits was burdened with the gravitas of a band of individuals who are persecuted by society (resulting in an oddly serious action film), Hellboy's approach is much more personal: this story isn't about finding out where you came from or fighting the odds or proving the world wrong, it's just about getting along. The tone is much lighter, and although some serious shit goes down (yes, a main character doesn't live to see the final reel) and some demons are excercized (mostly for Liz), the message is one of hope and you leave with a nice feeling in your tummy (not perhaps what one would expect from a film called Hellboy). And with Fantastic Four movie rumors still bouncing about, it looks like freak families are here to stay (hey -- anyone up for a feature film version of The Charmings?).

Perlman, who by this point has spent more years in makeup than RuPaul, is really great as the browbeaten strongman who just wants to be normal but loves his father so much that he begrudgingly saves the world for him on a regular basis. Blair is sadly underused (she doesn't really even appear until a good third of the way through) but does a good job with what she has, and John Hurt is fairly unrecognizeable and quite likeable as Proffessor Brutenholm. But for me the most interesting performance in the film was the one-two punch of the skeletal Doug Jones as the body of Abe Sapien and the wonderful David Hyde Pierce (who is oddly uncredited) as his voice. This guy is just plain otherworldly, folks: and anyone who raved about the CGI Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy will likely shut their traps when they see how a live actor in a rubber suit can create a truly unique, fascinating character with minimal computer assistance. In fact, the relationship between H.B. and Abe is quite charming -- the effete, sensitive lizard guy and the cigar-chomping, weight-lifting Colt model from hell really come off like old friends and their comfort with each other is quite touching.

There are also some fantastically strange setpieces ranging from the really icky (the autopsy of the mechanical Nazi is really spooky, as is just about every scene that he appears in) to the jaw-droppingly audacious (Liz's flashback nightmare really goes for broke) to the absurdly cutesy (the fact that Hellboy batters the snot out of a hellhound while cradling a box of newborn kittens is just too precious for words). And seriously, there is one of the most genuinely funny moments I've seen all year involving a jealous Hellboy, agent Myers, and a rock -- although I won't spoil it any more than that. Plenty of visual flourishes and tiny jokes keep you laughing and waiting for more, and more is what you get -- I, for one, was as happy with Hellboy as I was with the feeling of utter normalcy that I enjoyed just from being a part of its colorful audience. And if it takes a centered, well-meaning film about a giant red monkey and a talking sardine to gather that kind of audience, then I for one am hoping for a sequel. Soon.

Rating (out of 5):