Saturday, April 13, 2019

Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here

David Harbour in Hellboy (2019)

"The devil is not as black as he is painted." -- Dante, The Inferno

I have to admit, I was looking forward to the new Hellboy movie in spite of the wave of negative reviews that hit the week before it opened. I mean, sure, it was never going to be Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy, and it would take a bit of getting used to someone beside Ron Perlman in the role, but things move on with these sorts of franchise movies. If anything, I thought David Harbour was pretty good casting and I've liked Neil Marshall's work in the past (even the critically derided Doomsday). And Mike Mignola's comics provide a wealth of material. Too much so, as it turns out. Marshall's Hellboy (2019) reminds me a bit of Doomsday, in so far as it's a mishmash of various sources. It plays a bit like an anthology film, with the film's main plot acting as a framing sequence. This does the film no favors though.

The plot of the film follows the resurrection of Viviane Nimue, a sorceress from the King Arthur legends. Having been dismembered by Excalibur--the only weapon that can harm her--and her immortal remains scattered across England, she waits for her followers, monsters from the shadowed places of the world, to reassemble her so she can assume the mantle of The Queen of Blood and annihilate humanity in favor of her kind. The instruments of her resurrection is the failed pig-faced changeling, Gruagach, a creature with a grudge against Hellboy for a past encounter, and the witch, Baba Yaga, who has a similar beef. Hellboy himself is getting drunk in Tijuana after failing to retrieve an agent of the BPRD who had fallen victim to vampires and taken up a career as a luchador. Hellboy is lured to Great Britain by the BPRD's associates at The Osiris Club, who have a giant problem with. Three giants, to be exact. They ask for Hellboy's help against them, but things are not what they seem. The Osiris Club was present at Hellboy's entry into the world, summoned by the necromancer, Rasputin, on behalf of the Nazis, and they're informed by their staff clairvoyant that Hellboy will usher in the Apocalypse. When Nimue ultimately meets Hellboy, she comes to the same conclusion and resolves to bring that prophesy to fruition. Meanwhile, Hellboy doesn't know who to trust, not even his father, Professor Broom. His only trusted confidant is Alice, a young spirit medium who Hellboy has known since she was a baby. His other ally, who he categorically does not trust, is Major Ben Daimio, who returns the feeling. Daimio has secrets of his own. Their team fails to prevent Nimue's resurrection because she poisons Alice. When Hellboy takes Alice to the cave where Merlin is imprisoned so he can save her, Merlin tells Hellboy of his true parentage and offers Hellboy Excalibur, which is his birthright. But it's the sword that will cause him to take up his role in the end of the world, and he balks. Meanwhile, Nimue wreaks havoc in London, where Hellboy must confront her and must confront himself in the bargain.

David Harbour in Hellboy (2019)

In hiring Neil Marshall to take over the directing duties for Hellboy, the producers of this new movie are bringing a grittier horror movie sensibility to the material than the Gothic romanticism of Del Toro's films. Marshall made his name with brutal horror movies like Dog Soldiers and The Descent, to say nothing of his work on Game of Thrones, and that sensibility is both more violent and less prone to moments of lyrical horror. You won't find this film's giants taking root and flowering when they're defeated. Instead, you'll have an avalanche of blood and viscera. This is a movie that earns its "R" rating. Its design sensibility moves away from Mike Mignola's shadowy Jack Kirby-gothic, too, and favors the sensibilities of British dark fantasy. You can see the influence from artists like Ian Miller and John Blanche (and his copious work for the Warhammer games). Many of the film's fleeting pleasures are found in its design choices. Certainly, this version of Hellboy closes the book on cinematic representations of Baba Yaga and her famous house. The feast that Baba Yaga lays out for Hellboy is the director trying to one-up Del Toro's Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth. You might already see the danger in this, dear reader. The film sets itself up for an inevitable comparison to Del Toro, who is consequently revealed as a more subtle, more sensitive, more tasteful, and more imaginative director than Marshall. Never is this more true than in the re-staging of Hellboy's origin, which in comparison to the 2004 film seems like a recreation for a cable television version than for a major motion picture. The film obviously has resources, but its resources are misapplied. It seems marginally behind the curve for special effects blockbusters and rather than measuring up against a contemporary standard, it seems stranded in 2009 or so. This isn't necessarily a handicap, per se, but this isn't the core of the film's problems, either.

Milla Jovovich and Penelope Mitchell in Hellboy (2019)

The screenplay for this is all over the map. Every time the plot gets up a head of steam, the film stops to indulge in a flashback to fill the audience in on the extensive back story that has developed in Mignola's comics. Each of Hellboy's sidekicks gets a discreet origin story--Daimio's story is told mid-action scene(!!!)--all of these digressions are ham-fisted. If the filmmakers were willing to cut all of them, it would immediately improve the film. Both Milla Jovovich and Ian McShane do their worst work in this film, and McShane starts early as the voice over for the film's opening exposition. In their defense, the words they're given to say probably couldn't be performed any better. The screenplay, like the violence quotient of the film, has been ramped up to take advantage of the R-rating, whether it makes any sense for the characters at all. This has the perverse effect of depriving Hellboy himself of his signature expletive of "Aw, crap!" when things go sideways. The film also deprives him of his trademark cigar. The motives behind all of this are a mixed bag. For her part, Jovovich is given standard villain-speak, and she does what she can, I guess, but it all sounds like the kind of over-acting one might hear from a group of teenagers sitting around a table playing Dungeons & Dragons.

The film's choice of a villain is curious. Nimue in the Arthur myth is The Lady in the Lake, who gives Excalibur to Arthur and who traps Merlin in the Crystal Cave (fans of King Arthur movies may remember this as something Morgana does in John Boorman's Excalibur). She's not depicted as "a watery tart dispensing swords," in this film, but neither is she recognizable as the character from the myths. The Hellboy story on which this is based has Nimue driven mad and dismembered by the witches of England rather than by King Arthur and Merlin, and you can see remnants of that plot in the story that winds up on film. Mignola's story at least has some continuity with the Arthur myth. This film version does not. The film conflates Nimue with The Morrigan of Irish myth. It's bound to irritate or confuse anyone who has ever read Mallory or Scott or Tennyson or White or even Mary Stewart or other modern inheritors of the Matter of Britain. The film feels some of this confusion in its depiction, too, given that Nimue's aspect is often more a jilted lover than a megamaniacal super villain. But that's movies for you, I guess.

Daniel Dae-Kim, Sasha Lane, and David Harbour in Hellboy (2019)

David Harbour himself is a game Hellboy, and alone of the film's serried elements does not invite unfavorable comparisons to the previous version of the character. The film constrains his emotional range, but he manages a surprising amount of nuance anyway. The film mercifully forgoes a romantic relationship between Hellboy and Alice. Sasha Lane fares less well as Alice, though. Her British accent is inconsistent and she never seems able to plumb any but the shallowest of emotions throughout. While the film gives her cover for this--she's seen some shit, after all--the film also puts her in the crucible and shows her some shit. Daniel Dae-Kim's character has also seen some shit, but he's a soldier and a badass, so his stoicism is at least in character, if a bit monochromatic. The best performance in the film, Harbour aside, is from Stephen Graham as Grugauch, the pig-monster, who the actor plays as a supernatural version of a football hooligan. Sophie Okonedo is also good in her brief appearance as the clairvoyant Lady Hatton, but she doesn't have nearly enough to do.

David Harbour in Hellboy (2019)

Don't get me wrong. There are some pleasures to be had here. The episode in Tijuana that starts the film is actually pretty good at capturing the flavor of the comics (and it should be, given that it basically lifts one of Mignola's short stories verbatim). And even if I question the necessity of the film's gore, the gore-hound in me isn't so entirely dead that I can't appreciate a violent set-piece that goes over the top, as this film does in its scenes with the giants and during Nimue's London Apocalypse. But it's all disjointed, a Frankensteinian contraption in which disparate pieces from different bodies are stitched together (like Nimue herself, as it so happens) in a way that is profoundly less than the sum of its parts.

Christianne Benedict on Patreon
This blog is supported on Patreon by wonderful subscribers. If you like what I do, please consider pledging your own support. It means the world to me.

No comments: