|Written by Bill Warren|
|Saturday, 01 September 2007|
“Hellboy” is one of the few movies released in high definition so far that looks like a demonstration disc of the wonders of that format. Director Guillermo Del Toro and his dedicated team layered their film with crisp details, and a lot of them: snowflakes, drops of water on skin and clothing, explosions that scatter fragments, the textures of metal, cloth and leather, caves and tunnels whose cold, damp walls you can virtually feel. And then there’s the color. Almost all of “Hellboy” takes place at night, so the movie is full of deep but fully-realized blues. Our hero, Hellboy himself, has bright red skin (and a flicking red tail), which stands out against the blue backgrounds in intense relief, far more so than in theatrical prints. The film is drenched in mists, vapors, smoke and fog. The plentiful CGI is so well done it’s hard to spot, and even the reverse is true: the heads of the monstrous “Sammael” characters are covered in thick, writhing tentacles, so eloquent in their sinister sleekness that you think they must have been created by computer graphics. Nope. They’re live, on-the-set effects, and brilliantly conceived.
You add to this that the movie is itself extremely good (and was popular enough you have to wonder about a sequel), well worth watching several times, and this DVD becomes nearly a must-purchase for Blu-ray devotees.
Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” was one of the best films of 2006, and “Hellboy” one of the best of 2004. He’s a major talent—and like many another outstanding director, he’s also a well-informed movie buff, and far from a snob. Occasionally on commentary tracks for effects-laden films, directors will refer respectfully to FX giant Ray Harryhausen—but Del Toro refers to fanboy favorite Bert I. Gordon, too. And Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, as well as horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. But Del Toro isn’t just gosh-wow-boyoboy fannish; he understands this stuff, and knows where its appeals lie.
His commentary track is as rich in detail as the movie itself. He begins by thanking us for buying this DVD, pointing out that the version of “Hellboy” here is longer (by about 11 minutes) than the theatrical release, and that this is his preferred cut. He talks about “Hellboy”’s origins in comic books, frequently praising the comic’s writer/artist Mike Mignola, but also citing other comic book influences, such as Will Eisner, Bernie Wrightson and the rarely-mentioned Richard Corben. He’s among the few outside-the-biz experts who can pinpoint the value of Jack Kirby. The tough, wise-cracking Hellboy is very similar to many Kirby characters, including the frequent cigars—but Mignola also made Hellboy very fond of cats; his lair is full of them. Del Toro points out that he prefers powerful mythologies to an insistence on logic, linking Mignola to Lovecraft and even to Herman Melville. He cites a favorite book, “Passport to the Supernatural” by Bernard Hurwood, but also amusingly points out that “my entire life is dictated by lunch, as you can see.” (Del Toro is pudgy.)
He speaks authoritatively of the historical background as well. One of the lead characters is named Rasputin, presumably the sinister monk who guided the last Russian Tsars. There’s a reference to The Spear of Destiny, supposedly the spear that pricked Jesus’ side as he hung on the cross; the spear was a major interest of Adolf Hitler. The Third Reich had deep roots in the occult; many Nazis believed in the reality of “Ultima Thule,” an Arctic island with links to Atlantis that was the birthplace of “the Aryan Race.” All this is woven into the background of the comic book and this movie.
He’d planned a “Hellboy” movie as early as 1998, but had a great deal of trouble finding a studio willing to take a fling on a comic book movie—as odd as that may sound now. Then along came “Spider-Man,” The X-Men, The Matrix trilogy and others, and suddenly “Hellboy” seemed like a reasonable risk. Still, it took an international coalition (the film is partly German in origin) and two production companies to get the film made. Fortunately for all, while it wasn’t a major hit, “Hellboy” was a substantial success.
The disc is laden with substantial extras, all of which are intelligently made, some of which are quite long. This is a hefty DVD package. In the “Seeds of ‘Hellboy’” featurette, there are interviews with Del Toro, Mignola, producer Lloyd Levin, production designer Stephen Scott, stunt supervisor Monty Simons, Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, as well as actors Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair and Doug Jones.
There are amazing demonstrations of the “Sammael” suit, both how it was constructed and how it was rigged for the many stunt scenes involving these characters. Makeup is very important in this film. Ron Perlman, of course, is no stranger to makeup: he was the Beast in the “Beauty and the Beast” TV series, he was one of the stars of “Quest for Fire,” and a Manimal in the most recent “Island of Dr. Moreau.” Here, it’s surprising to learn that his entire face was covered in several elaborate, carefully-sculpted prosthetics; he even wore contact lenses. And yet Perlman is eloquently expressive through all this latex, one reason why it’s such a surprise to find out how extensive the makeup work on him was.
Some of the deleted scenes have been cut back into the film, and a few scenes that were already there have been made a bit longer. Del Toro commentary for these scenes is also available. There are only three deleted scenes.
The featurette “Visual Effects How To’s” is also fascinating, and quite long. Among those commenting, in addition to Del Toro, effects supervisor Ed Irastorza explains some of the more impressive shots. There’s an unusual sequence of lighting tests of Perlman in his Hellboy makeup; in each, he IS Hellboy, getting fully into character even for these isolated closeups. Several lenses and combinations of filters and light colors are tested, with Del Toro explaining why some worked and some didn’t.
Finally, there’s a simply conceived lecture by graphic art expert/historian Scott McCloud (whose comic book “Concrete” is fondly remembered by many) about sequential art/graphic art/comic books. Without notes he sits on what looks like bleachers in a basketball court and deftly takes us through not just a history of the art form, but how and why it works, how it developed its grammar, and how it tells its stories. Even if you think you know this kind of material very well, take a look at this feature; it’s amazingly informative.
This Blu-ray disc overall is pretty damned amazing. First, there’s this very good movie to watch, then Del Toro’s fascinating commentary track, and finally all these extensive extras. This is about as rich a package for a newish movie as anyone has done so far.