Thoughts on the Hellboy reboot

David Harbour in Hellboy (2019)

I just purchased my tickets to see the new Hellboy reboot starring David Harbour and direct by Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent). While I am a big fan of Hellboy, my introduction to him came through the 2004 film. I wish I had discovered the comic when it debuted in the 1990s, as I was obsessed with the X-Files and H.P. Lovecraft at that time and probably would have loved it.

It’s no secret that expectations are not particularly high for the reboot – even Hellboy creator Mike Mignola seems aware of that. The first trailer did not go over well, and the second, while better, did not wash away all the concerns. The film’s tracking is reportedly not looking so good.

My take on this film, especially with the most recent trailers and TV spots, is that while Hellboy is a character very associated with Mignola and his distinct style, the new film seems to ask, “What if Frank Frazetta created Hellboy?”

If Mignola and the producers are looking to create a new cinematic universe, I don’t see the wisdom of using this film to adapt two very late-era Hellboy stories, The Wild Hunt and The Storm and the Fury. In the comics, both of these stories take place in the early stages of what is essentially the Apocalypse; Hellboy actually dies at the end of The Storm and the Fury, leading him into a Dante-esque journey into Hell itself.

This story would have made more sense if this was the final sequel to the 2004 film by Guillermo Del Toro (although the odd subplot of Hellboy’s children from Hellboy II would have had to be dealt with). Of course, superhero films often have world-ending stakes, so it’s possible – even likely – the film’s conclusion won’t go in the same direction as the comics.

Nonetheless, it’s not the direction I would have taken with the reboot, regardless of whether it was intended to be a standalone film or the start of a franchise. Not that anyone cares about how I would have done it, of course, but here’s my pitch.

I’d keep Harbour as Hellboy; he’s a good choice, and could anchor a franchise for years. But I would have made the film a period piece – maybe the 1960s or ’70s – and made the stakes fairly low (i.e., not the apocalypse). I would have sidestepped the whole “Hellboy’s destiny” storyline, which took precedence in the comics fairly early on. The “chosen one” aspect of Hellboy never interested me very much; my favorite HB stories are the ones where he basically takes the place of some figure from a folk tale.

That’s why my take would have been somewhat like Mad Max: Fury Road or the Fistful of Dollars trilogy. The idea would be something like this: a wandering Hellboy comes to some small town that’s having a supernatural problem, gets involved in a mystery that ends up involving a monster or supernatural threat of some sort. But while Hellboy is present and gets some action sequences, the story is as much about the other characters as it is Hellboy. And again, fairly low stakes, a low, almost indie film budget (and look), not too much CGI — largely a character piece / mystery. And I’d give it to someone like Travis Knight to direct.

Finally, I would have given Hellboy a different characterization. Perlman’s Hellboy was a bit goofy and somewhat self-absorbed; Harbour’s take appears to be sarcastic and angry. Neither represents the Hellboy of the comics, who is thoughtful, a bit world-weary, and whose sense of humor is mostly of the “dad” type.

Anyway, that would have been my approach. If the film is cheap enough, it doesn’t have to be a massive hit, and if it’s successful enough you can build from there.

Man or Saruman?

While they still seem like a long ways off, Guillermo Del Toro is hard at work on a pair of films based on The Hobbit. They haven’t officially cast anyone for the films yet, though Ian McKellen is very clearly on board. But what about that other wizard, Saruman? (more…)

Review > District 9

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From an aesthetic and conceptual standpoint, I liked a lot of things about District 9. Director Neil Blomkamp has already proven to be a master of the use of adding special effects (such as aliens) to documentary-style footage to heighten their realism–the grainy, shaky camera work hides a multitude of CGI sins while anchoring the viewer in a familiar, real-world context (well, as “real” as your average news show is these days).

Then there’s the concept. District 9‘s set-up is simple: in the early 1980s, a giant alien mothership appears in Earth airspace. Rather than nuking New York–or even London, or Paris, or Tokyo–it settles over Johannesburg, South Africa, where it proceeds to hover for three months until the local government decides to take action. Drilling into the ship, they discover a million malnourished, sickly insect-like aliens. They take the aliens out of the ship and set up a temporary refugee camp below the vessel, which eventually turns into a permanent residence and, finally, a slum. (more…)

The Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla 1985)

Godzilla

I was introduced to Godzilla by my cousin Ed, who passed down to me his Shogun Warriors Godzilla toy as well as his love of WLVI 56’s Creature Double Feature. I took to the big green lizard like a fish to water–something about the fire-breathing, skyscraper-sized beast spoke to my young soul. I won’t bother to analyze that right now. In any event, I grew up on Godzilla movies. (In fact, Godzilla would eventually help me get into college–but I’ll tell that story some other time.)

In August 1985, at the age of six, I finally got to see a Godzilla movie in the theater. Godzilla 1985 (or The Return of Godzilla, as it was known in Japan) was an important event in my childhood.

(more…)

Friday the 13th, Part II

Here’s the second (and final) movie review I wrote before my mind began to melt. Enjoy!

Friday the 13th Part II: A stream-of-consciousness review from memory

Let’s see…the movie starts with a street. We find out later it’s five years since the events of the first film, though this movie came out in 1981, a year after the first. Anyway, we see a girl’s legs walking down a street and then she goes inside, and she’s followed by a mysterious guy in boots. The music tells me he’s bad. By the way, we’re on a suburban street or something. Then we cut to Alice (Adrienne King), the heroine from the first movie, who’s lying in bed dreaming of stock footage from the first movie, which recaps the climax of that film in excruciating, lengthy detail. Finally Alice wakes up, putters around for a while, then gets herself stabbed in the head with an ice pick. Then the credits roll. Ha ha, excellent job director Steve Miner, you made me think Alice was going to be the protagonist but then she died! Kind of reminds me of the opening of Scream.

There’s a noisy credit sequence featuring nutty, chaotic music by Harry Manfredini that reminds me of The Evil Dead. I forgot to mention the distinctive “K-K-K ma-ma-ma” sound in my review of the first film, which was allegedly created by Manfredini distorting his voice saying, “Kill her, mommy!”

Of course I know going into this that the killer is Jason, but the movie’s not exactly subtle on that point anyway. But it raises the question: why the heck is Jason alive? Later we discover that he’s been living in a shack for years?hold on, I’ll save that rant for later.

Once Alice has been dispatched, we join a cast of nubile young teenagers who are basically clones of the ones from the first movie. No, someone isn’t stupid enough to re-open Camp Crystal Lake, but someone is just stupid enough to open a different summer camp nearby. The camp leader/owner/authority figure tells a legend about Jason, hammering home the fact that he’s the killer in the first twenty minutes of the film. The Last Girl?by which I mean the heroine?is named Ginny, by the way, and she’s a cute blonde played by Amy Steel. The camp leader guy is named Paul and I didn’t like him enough to look up the actor’s name on imdb.

A bunch of the counselors go to town to drink, leaving us with our core group of victims. Somewhere in there a cop sees Jason and follows him to an old shack, where he gets himself killed (the cop, of course). It turns out Jason has been living in a shack his entire life. This is bizarrely explained through a monologue from a drunk Ginny, who somehow manages to divine the entire backstory with absolutely no evidence whatsoever. It seems Jason didn’t drown, and allegedly no one ever found his body (so one wonders why Mrs. Voorhees is so sure he drowned…anyway). Apparently Jason decided to live out the rest of his life as a hermit in the woods, rather than going to his mother and explaining that no, he lived, actually. Ginny speculates that he may have seen his mother die, which accounts for why he has her head in his shack, but that makes me wonder?didn’t the cops wonder where Pamela Voorhees’s head went? The film makes it clear that it’s known Pamela was the killer in the first film. So did Jason dig up his mother’s corpse later? Or just take the head right then and there? Actually, wait, he had her sweater, too…

Lots of people get killed and Jason gets revealed as a guy in overalls with a pillowcase on his head. No hockey mask or machete in this one?just a pitchfork. Ginny manages to thwart Jason by pretending to be his mother, which is a fairly interesting scene in an otherwise lame movie. For the record, Ginny’s clearly smarter and more interesting than Alice.

Ultimately, though, I was glad just to get through this thing. These straight slasher movies are so dull. I want to see some supernatural elements and maybe some character development, if that’s not too much to ask.

Troll Market

The more I read about Hellboy 2, the more it seems that there’s something of a Harry Potter-esque vibe to it. I think it’s the idea of the “Troll Market” more than anything else, but still.

I really can’t predict how well this film will do. The first one was a moderate success, but it was no Batman Begins or even X-Men. Maybe these Rowling-esque touches, while alienating some Hellboy fans (Hi, Scott!) will draw in the casual crowd.

Friday the 13th

I wrote this piece a few months ago, when I was still thinking I could sit through all the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween movies. It turned out I couldn’t, but I did manage to write two reviews before I gave up. Here’s the first one.

Hello and welcome. I’m Jander Rothberg.

And my name is Sir Nigel Sandstone.

We’re here today to discuss the celluloid trash—I mean, the cinematic masterpie—the film Friday the 13th. Filmed on a budget of $700,000 and released in 1980, this so-called ‘slasher flick’ spawned—and I do mean spawned, as spawn is a word most often associated with slimy things with tentacles—spawned a series of sequels.

Now now, Jan, you’re getting ahead of yourself, no?

Oh very well. Hand me the tea, will you? The film’s plot, such as it is, can be summarized thusly. The movie begins in a place called Camp Crystal Lake in 1958. Two teenage camp counselors sneak off to copulate and are brutally murdered. Twenty years later, the camp is re-opened and teenage camp counselors are brutally murdered, usually after sneaking off to copulate.

Now now, Jan, there’s a bit more to it than that.

Is there? I was under the impression this was a quickie rip-off of John Carpenter’s far superior Halloween that happened to have enough nudity and gratuitous violence to be successful and give the filmmakers the wrong idea that they should keep making movies rather than turning their talents to some other medium that might better suit their talents. Like fabric sculpture, perhaps.

All right, enough. I for one thought the film was relatively effective at what it was trying to do, which is to scare you.

But what kind of goal is that for a work of art? Is there nothing more?

What about Psycho?

Touché. But I do hope you’re not comparing Alfred Hitchcock to Sean S. Cunningham, the director of this film?

What if I were?

Then I should beat you about the face and neck until I was certain your fit of madness had passed.

As everyone knows, the big twist in Friday the 13th is that the killer turns out not to be a masked male psychopath—that came in the later films—but a middle-aged woman, the mother of a boy named Jason Voorhees who drowned at the camp in 1957 while the counselors were off copulating, as you put it.

Hmph. ‘Twist.’ I suppose it was fairly clever. But once the woman, played by one Betsy Palmer, was revealed, I have to say the heroine did not handle herself very well. How many times did she beat the woman down, then leave without making sure she was unconscious?

Well, one must expect such conventions of the genre.

Oh please. But I did like the old crazy fellow in town who told them that the Camp had a death curse. If I had a nickel for every time I was told one of my vacation destinations had a death curse…

…then what?

Pardon?

If you had a nickel for every time that happened, then what?

I’d be rich, I believe the expression goes.

People have actually told you that a place you are going on vacation has a death curse?

I was merely making a joke, Nigel.

So no one’s ever actually told you a place you were going had a death curse.

Well, there was that one time, when I was going to visit New Haven. But that turned out to be true.

Moving on. What did you think of the cast? I thought the actors were generally a bit stilted and untrained, but that was fine, since all they really had to do was die in horribly violent ways.

Yes, it was a very rewarding film in that regard.

I suppose we ought to mention that this film features a very young Kevin Bacon.

Yes, he gets stabbed through the throat from under the bed. Excellent role for him. Unfortunately for those of you who like to play “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” none of the other actors in this film have ever done anything else.

Now that’s neither nice nor quite true.

It’s mostly true.

…yes.

Also, I’m unclear as to why I had to be subjected to Mr. Bacon wearing a skintight banana-hammock and, later, his exposed buttocks.

I did like the heroine, Alice. I thought Adrienne King made her charming and believable.

Aside from the character’s astounding lack of common sense and mild-to-moderate arm strength, I’ll agree with you.

Of course, it’s the next film that the infamous Jason Voorhees takes his place as the antagonist of the series. But I’ll let Mr. Clarke tell you about that. Until next time, my friends.

Enjoy the day.

Del Toro + Lovecraft = happy JFCC

At the Mountains of Madness

Somewhat on-topic, here’s some fantastic news: it seems Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) has finally gotten the green light to make his big-budget adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. (I like to think it was partly my influence–see the last question.)

Finally, someone will take a crack at a true A-movie version of Lovecraft’s work. ATMOM is probably the best one to start with, though I think The Dunwich Horror would make a great film as well. With any luck (and skill), ATMOM will be the beginning of a run of big-budget Lovecraft films (like the Austen films of the nineties or the current epic fantasy boom).

The Call of Cthulhu

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Here’s an interesting tidbit. Last night I watched The Call of Cthulhu, a short independent film by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. The concept was to adapt Lovecraft’s famous short story in the style of the era in which it was written–that is, a 1920s silent movie.

I actually requested Netflix add the title to their collection, and they quite nicely obliged me (which was no doubt a better boon to the filmmakers than if I’d just bought my own copy). That said, I was wary; the concept seemed ambitious and I’d already seen more than one bad, low-budget Lovecraft adaptation.

But The Call of Cthulhu impressed me. The silent film conceit works well for Lovecraft’s writing style, which is low on character development and features lots of oblique references and impenetrable dialogue. The acting is surprisingly good, perfectly capturing the stage-like style of the period, and rarely seems amateurish. Most importantly the cinematography and film stock give the impression of an actual 1920s silent film, rather than a black-and-white student film that happens to have no dialogue.

The special effects are interesting too, particularly the Impressionistic manner in which the filmmakers present the “non-Euclidean” architecture of R’lyeh, Cthulhu’s sunken city.

The film is only fifty minutes long and well worth a rental, especially if you’re a Lovecraft fan. I may end up buying a copy for myself. While this isn’t the most realistic adaptation of Lovecraft, it is one of the most effective and faithful to the spirit of the work.

Dreaming in ultraviolet near dark

Watched a few movies over the weekend. I don’t really feel like doing individual reviews of any of them, so here are my thoughts based on a five-star rating system:

Masters of Horror: Stuart Gordon’s Dreams in the Witch House

Director Stuart Gordon is the only commercial filmmaker to have made a concerted effort to bring H.P. Lovecraft’s eccentric style of horror to the big screen. His greatest success was and remains Re-Animator, which ironically was based on Lovecraft’s novella “Herbert West–Reanimator,” a work that’s one of Lovecraft’s least-regarded (by himself as well as his fans). By making it into a true dark comedy, Gordon actually improved upon the original tale, though I don’t think there’s anything particularly “Lovecraftian” about the end result.

Gordon’s next effort was From Beyond, based on Lovecraft’s story of the same name, which I haven’t seen and therefore won’t comment on. But I have seen Dagon, Gordon’s attempt at adapting one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. To my mind, Gordon makes a painfully crucial error in the film by setting it in a tiny West European fishing village rather than the haunted New England Lovecraft so adored. That said, there’s enough weirdness to make Dagon one of Gordon’s better efforts, but it’s still doesn’t quite capture that true Lovecraftian feel.

Dreams in the Witch House, Gordon’s first contribution to Showtime’s acclaimed Masters of Horror series, is probably the most faithful Lovecraft adaptation I’ve seen to date. It’s based on one of my favorite Lovecraft tales (though it’s not too highly regarded in critical circles), and it features one of his most successful efforts at blending science fiction with supernatural horror.

Miskatonic University grad student Walter Gilman (Ezra Godden) somewhat reluctantly takes a room in an ancient, crumbling boarding house. Aside from the stereotypically fat and unpleasant landlord, Walter’s housemates include creepy old man Masurewicz (Campbell Lane) and single mother Frances Elwood (Chelah Horsdal). The lonely Walter and Frances are soon engaging in some awkward flirting, while Walter begins having some very odd nightmares involving a witch and a rat with a human face.

I was impressed by the acting of Godden and Horsdal. While the other characters are a bit two-dimensional, Walter and Frances are fully realized and behave as believably as one could, given the circumstances. While Frances was “Frank” in the original story (and obviously not a love interest), many of the major plot points are present. The changes made to the story (and I’m not entirely sure what they are, since I haven’t read it in a year or two) are mostly for the better, I think, adding an emotional involvement with the characters that Lovecraft was incapable of doing.

My only disappointment was the conclusion, which gets bogged down in unnecessary exposition and delays the inevitable a bit too long. The film could easily have used the original ending to the story and gotten away with it.

Overall, though, this is probably my favorite film translation of a Lovecraft story so far. Fingers crossed for that Guillermo Del Toro adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, though.

Near Dark

With surprising frequency, I discover the existence of cult movies I wasn’t even aware of. Evil Dead II was one of those, as was Legend and, most recently, Time After Time. While the quality of these discoveries varies, it’s always interesting to run across these nuggets of genre film.

After the punishing disappointment of Time After Time, I didn’t expect much from Near Dark (1987), which seemed very similar The Lost Boys (which had come out a few months earlier). The films have an almost identical plot: a young man gets turned into a vampire against his will and is then shanghaied by the vampire gang into becoming one of them–or else. But where The Lost Boys was played mostly for thrills and laughs, Near Dark adds a certain pathos about the vampire condition that makes it work surprisingly well.

Billed as a “vampire Western,” Near Dark features Heroes’ Adrian Pasdar as Caleb, the aforementioned dupe; Jenny Wright as the sexy vamp fatale who dupes him; Lance Henriksen as the nihilistic leader of the gang; and Bill Paxton as the resident psychotic. (Jennette Goldstein also plays a vampire, which means Near Dark features three Aliens actors just a year after that movie came out.)

The film’s most famous scene is a bloody massacre in a bar, and what makes it effective is the vampires’ truly cold-blooded attitude toward their victims. Unlike many movie vampires of late, these aren’t the flying monsters of Lost Boys or even the feral, animalistic hedonists of the Blade flicks; these are serial killers whose bloodthirst happens to be literal.

Of course, one does have to get past the psychedelic Tangerine Dream soundtrack–is it me, or is that band singularly responsible for making a third of all ’80s films instantly dated?

The last third of Near Dark is the weakest, with a terrible deus ex machina and some unrealistic behavior on the part of the normies, but overall I was surprised by how much I liked this one.

(Oh, and don’t look now, but there’s a remake on the way.)

Ultraviolet

DG wanted to watch something dumb, so we got it via On Demand. In the past, I’ve been willing to defend director Kurt Wimmer’s previous film, Equilibrium, which gets a bad rap as a Matrix rip-off even though it was filmed at about the same time and stars a better actor.

But I’m not going to defend Ultraviolet. Holy crap, what the heck was that? I mean…I guess I don’t really have anything to say. Just…wow. What a mess.

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