Hell Isn’t Other People

In the past week, I’ve seen both of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy films with Tim and Tantek. We watched the first on DVD at Tantek’s house, and saw the new second installment last night at the Metreon, in a pretty empty theatre.

I wish I could say that the Hellboy movies are good, but they’re probably really not. They have hackneyed dialogue, cliched plots, bad supporting actors– all the B-movie trappings that a Dark Knight or an Iron Man spends those extra millions to obviate. There are some lessons thrown into the films, but nothing of particular philosophical merit– mostly, things tend to get resolved in the end, and lingering moral questions are irrelevant.

If the Hellboy movies aren’t good, though, they are certainly crazy as hell, which is almost the same thing. It’s clear that all of the silliness is intentional (this is pan-American comic book geeks, not Texan fertilizer salesmen, that we’re talking about), but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. Given the opportunity to blow stuff up real good, do some nifty CGI, and ogle some breasts, how many action movie directors instead devote at least five minutes of their film to the main character and his sidekick drunkenly singing along to Barry Manilow? Or a slapstick action sequence involving a ghost, a series of locker doors, and a can of Tecate? Most superheroes live the lives of 80’s rock stars: money, glamour, women, fame. In contrast, the adventures of Hellboy and friends are much more amateurish, kind of like “Wayne’s World.”

Oh man, and don’t even get me started on the Forbidden Planet-meets-Dr. Strangelove German robot with the mechanical mouth and the steam blowing out. Voiced by Seth MacFarlane, no less– yes, that Seth MacFarlane.

Of course, no exegesis on a del Toro film is complete without noting the elegance of his signature visual style. The creatures and crawlies in this film are truly incredible, from the oracle with eyes in her wings (reminiscent of the cherubim from L’Engle’s “A Wind in the Door,” as Tantek cleverly noted) to the gnawing, clawing tiny tooth fairies. The floppy-faced skin bags from Pan’s Labyrinth also make a reappearance.

Oh yeah, and there’s a weird-looking evil elf guy who wants to end the world. But that’s not really the first, or even the fifth concern, for the Hellboy crew. Watching the Hellboy films reminds me of my time at Harvard in more than a few ways: it’s about an isolated group of different, gifted, slightly crazy people who are trying to find a way to get along. Okay, so none of my classmates turned into columns of fire or lived in fishtanks, and only a few emerged from the bowels of hell. But at the end of the day, they all had to get along and work together– regardless of whether the task was saving the world or saving their GPAs. There was a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, a lot of gossiping behind every back. But in the end, it worked, and we worked. Hellboy‘s merit as a film, besides its batshit-crazy good humor, is its assertion that the inmates can run the asylum– and do a damn good job at that. No, we may not have been different enough back at the old alma mater to blow stuff up or fight giant plant gods. But we were all pretty good at being weird. Like the characters in Hellboy, that’s what brought us together.


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