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This Week in Genre History: Hellboy was a heavenly mix of monsters, heroes... and del Toro
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
The story of Hollywood in the 21st century, in large part, is about the cultural dominance of the comic book movie. Obviously, there had been massively successful superhero films prior to that, but starting around 2000's X-Men, the industry began not only to embrace these stories but to see them as one of its most important cash cows. Spider-Man, Batman, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Zack Snyder's DC films; suddenly, characters with incredible powers were taken very seriously by executives who used to think of comic books as the domain of nerds. As a result, these costumed crime fighters earned mainstream respectability in a way they never had before. (Black Panther even got a Best Picture nomination.) Geeking out over Iron Man was something people were supposed to be slightly embarrassed about. That's changed in the past 20 years.
But that didn't mean there still wasn't room for disreputable comic book characters, those ornery antiheroes who weren't interested in being beloved. (They were too cool and weird for that.) So today, we celebrate Hellboy, which debuted in theaters on April 2, 2004. As opposed to the insecure-but-adorable Peter Parker or the square-jawed decency of Bruce Wayne, Hellboy was a grouchy demon beast who stared down the forces of evil — his gruff demeanor matched his imposing features. The movie was about an outcast, and it was directed by an outsider, Guillermo del Toro, who grew up loving horror flicks and B-movies — he was as much of a hardcore genre fan as the people who ended up buying a ticket to see Hellboy.
"I find monstrous things incredibly beautiful, in the way that the most beautiful carvings in Gothic cathedrals are the grotesque carvings," del Toro once explained regarding his affection for misfits and monsters. "If I were a mason I would be carving gargoyles. I'm absolutely head over heels in love with all these things."
Before he concocted the fantastical world of Pan's Labyrinth or won Oscars for the interspecies love story The Shape of Water, the auteur imagined a funky universe in which Hellboy (Ron Perlman) teams up with an amphibious creature named Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and a woman with pyrokinetic abilities, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) to battle the evil Rasputin (Karel Roden).
Unlike the assembly-line sameness that soon pervaded superhero cinema, Hellboy was a quirky, original vision that contained the vibrancy and edginess of a comic book. It was a movie you wanted to get lost in.
Not everybody felt that way, of course: The original movie was far from a blockbuster, dwarfed by the likes of Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles that year. But Hellboy eventually found its audience, spurring a sequel and a years-later reboot starring David Harbour that was utterly unpopular because fans didn't want to see this character in the hands of anyone other than del Toro. If you're going to make a Hellboy movie, you have to do it right.
Why was it a big deal at the time? In the early 1990s, comic book artist/writer Mike Mignola dreamed up the half-demon/half-human character Hellboy, who's brought into our dimension by the Nazis during World War II but rescued by Allied forces.
"As far back as I can remember, even when I was a kid, I've been fascinated by the supernatural," he said in 2007. "I've been reading that type of literature forever. After 10 years in the comics business, doing mostly superheroes, I really wanted to do something that was the kind of subject matter that I really like. My first thought was to do a normal, human guy who investigates paranormal phenomenon, but I knew I'd get bored drawing that very quickly. So I created this character that I thought, you know, if the series was successful, would be fun to draw. If I'm drawing him just walking down the street, I'm still drawing a monster... basically, I just wanted to draw monsters for a living."
Starting with 1994's Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, this unconventional detective character started to grow in popularity, and soon Hollywood came calling. It made sense that del Toro would be interested in adapting the comic to the big screen: Like Mignola, he wasn't drawn to the ordinary and everyday in his work. "Some people find Jesus. I found Frankenstein," del Toro told the Los Angeles Times about his childhood. "And the reason I'm alive and articulate and semi-sane is monsters. It's not an affectation. It's completely, spiritually real to me."
He had earned acclaim for his nervy arthouse horror films Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, and had proved he could handle a franchise by directing 2002's Blade II. So he had enough juice to get Hellboy made — and to hold out for the actor he wanted to play the lead. It took a while, though.
"For seven years he'd go to these meetings at these studios, and he'd say, 'Ron Perlman,'" Perlman later recalled. Certainly, the character actor, at that point probably best known for his Emmy-nominated turn in the 1980s TV series Beauty and the Beast, was grateful that del Toro was determined to cast him as Hellboy. Still, Perlman wasn't optimistic about his chances: In that same interview, he remembered telling the director, "That's a great idea and god bless you, I love you for entertaining the idea, but it'll never happen." However, the two men had hit it off after Perlman had starred in Cronos, and del Toro finally got his way.
Reportedly budgeted around $60 million — relatively modest in comparison to other superhero films of the time — Hellboy emphasized the use of practical effects as much as possible, with del Toro citing his love for stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen (the man behind the effects for a series of Sinbad movies and the original Clash of the Titans) as a guiding inspiration.
"I wanted that sort of action-adventure fusion with humor and good heart in the Hellboy movies," del Toro would later say. Indeed, his Hellboy had an enchanted, old-school-magical quality to it — although the film's elaborate makeup required Perlman and Jones spending hours a day getting ready.
"The usual process is Ron would show up there and we were allowed four hours," makeup artist Jake Garber revealed of their early-morning routine. "The actual time he was sitting in the chair was usually two-and-a-half hours. But I wanted him to be able to get up, stretch, and have a cup of coffee, maybe a little breakfast so it's not quite as grueling as sitting there for four hours straight."
Despite the movie's handmade charms and Perlman's winning everyman demeanor as Hellboy — reportedly, the studio wanted Vin Diesel for the role — the movie was going to face some obstacles. For one thing… who even knew who Hellboy was? The character didn't have the notoriety of Spider-Man or Hulk, who had been the star of an Ang Lee film the previous year. And Perlman lacked the name recognition of X-Men's Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen, who was simultaneously part of the gigantic Lord of the Rings franchise.
Considering the battles it took for del Toro to actually get Hellboy green-lit, the fact that the movie was coming out at all seemed like a victory.
"It went through every permutation," the director said on the eve of Hellboy's release. "I had studios where I would start a meeting, and they would say, 'You're not making him red are you?' And I go, 'Yeah, he's red.' 'You're not doing the tail are you?' 'Yes, I'm doing the tail.' 'You're not doing the horns?' 'Yes, I'm doing the horns."'
What was the impact? Despite the character not being ubiquitous in the culture, Hellboy opened at No. 1 on its opening weekend. (The film fell to No. 2 the following weekend, which was Easter, and a little juggernaut known as The Passion of the Christ, which had opened back in February, returned to the top spot thanks to the religious holiday.) Del Toro's passion project garnered good reviews, with critics praising his ability to craft an idiosyncratic comic book movie, but Hellboy grossed only about $100 million globally, making it a commercial disappointment.
But at a time when DVD sales could resurrect underperforming films, Hellboy got a second life once fans started renting and purchasing the disc in droves. ("The Blu-ray DVD performance of the first Hellboy was massive… Far as I can recall, the number for home video surpassed theatrical," del Toro admitted.) Impressed, executives went ahead with a sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which came out in the heat of summer movie season four years later, opening around heavy-hitters like Hancock and The Dark Knight.
Other comic book movies of the time were tentpoles, but Hellboy proudly remained a hip cult item featuring lived-in characters who were far more soulful than their monstrous outer shells would suggest. (The emotional bond Hellboy shares with his cohorts may be the film's best effect, particularly the love story between Hellboy and Liz.) As a result, Hellboy appealed to viewers who didn't want a slick, serialized adventure akin to what the MCU has pulled off since. Instead, although Hellboy was rated PG-13, its influence is more deeply felt in R-rated idiosyncrasies like 2012's Dredd, or even the Deadpool films, which offered prickly main characters you couldn't exactly bring home to your parents.
To be sure, there had been oddball comic book movies before Hellboy — del Toro initially tried to get the film off the ground at the same time that 1999's Mystery Men was in production — but it was the one that demonstrated that an inventive director could concoct a superhero adventure that didn't have to be a polished, four-quadrant blockbuster. As Marvel and DC got bigger and more accepted by mainstream audiences, their movies couldn't help but lose their cool cachet along the way. Hellboy was a refreshing antidote: It wasn't made by a committee or designed to appeal to everyone. Much like its cigar-chomping hero, it got to be anti-establishment.
Has it held up? Both Hellboy and its sequel remain groovy, imaginative films — and if you need further proof, look at how the world reacted to the misbegotten 2019 reboot. Reportedly, Perlman had been approached to reprise his role, but the actor turned it down since del Toro wasn't going to be involved. "[I] decided that the only version of Hellboy I'm interested in is the one I do with Guillermo," Perlman said last summer. "So in walking away from it, I truly walked away from it, and haven't seen it or heard much about it. I wished them well, but it was not in my bailiwick."
It didn't seem to be in a lot of other people's bailiwick, either: Critics ripped the Neil Marshall-directed film, which tanked at the box office. Stranger Things star David Harbour took over as Hellboy, later admitting that hardcore fans of the property just weren't into it. "Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman created this iconic thing that we thought could be reinvented... [but] the loudness of the internet was like, 'We do not want you to touch this,'" Harbour said. (It didn't help that, later, reports of on-set problems started to surface.)
The R-rated reboot tried to amplify the funkiness of the monsters, as well as Hellboy's smart-ass surliness, but in the process, it lost the charm and spark of del Toro's adaptations. Just as importantly, it was missing Perlman's gentle touch as Hellboy. In Beauty and the Beast, he'd earned accolades playing one of fiction's most iconic gentle giants, and in this supernatural being, he again located the humanity within an ostensibly fearsome creature. Under all that makeup and that menacing tail is a good soul who's just trying to do the right thing. We dig Hellboy's horns and his quips, but we love him for his big heart. Any remake that leaves that out doesn't understand this demon at all.
Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site. His new book, This Is How You Make a Movie, is out now.