It’s a real disappointment that the plug was unceremoniously pulled on the closing chapter of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy trilogy. His first two films established a strangely beguiling universe that did justice to the Dark Horse Comics character, and was admired by fans and critics alike. But the box office returns disappointed, and so here comes the inevitable reboot, a little over a decade after Hellboy II: The Golden Army. But bitter pills and bland titles aside, the promise of a darker, R-rated interpretation courtesy of Neil Marshall – the director behind Dog Soldiers and the pant-soilingly terrifying The Descent – was somewhat enticing.
This instalment sees screenwriter Andrew Cosby adapt Mike Mignola’s comic book trilogy The Wild Hunt, The Storm And The Fury and Darkness Calls (the film’s German title – Hellboy: Call of Darkness – tips its hat to the latter). It stars Stranger Things’ David Harbour, who dons the requisite prosthetics to take over from Ron Perlman as Big Red. The new adventure sees him square-up to resurrected sorceress Nimue the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), who is intent on literally raising hell. Alongside his new teammates, the magical Alice (Sasha Lane) and military-bod-with-a-secret Ben (Daniel Dae Kim), our reluctant hero gets entangled in an Arthurian legend and grapples with his origin story. The result is darker, gorier and swearier but certainly not better.
As faithful as this new version is to the character, it’s a clunky, sloppily-told mess. Unlike most reboots worth their salt, Hellboy brings little fresh to the table besides a murkier tone. It may set up a separate continuity, but there’s nothing here that steps out from del Toro’s shadow. From our hero discovering his true nature as the harbinger of the apocalypse to his fraught relationship with his adoptive father (Ian McShane taking over from the much-missed John Hurt), Marshall and Cosby retread ground already trodden by the first – and best – Hellboy, only this time with unintentional humour and visceral sequences of innocent bystanders being ripped in half. 2004’s Hellboy may not have been as hardcore as this, but it had a distinct identity. The 2019 version is disappointingly generic, and saturates the screen with off-putting visuals, and not in a purposefully unpleasant horror-fantasy way. The less said about its sequel-baiting ending and the ear-bleedingly annoying soundtrack, the better.
To be completely fair, some of its horror-influenced flourishes are compelling, with a clear standout being the Baba Yaga character, a terrifyingly deformed crone belonging to Slavic folklore who torments our demon antihero. But like the buckets of gratuitous violence, she seems to exist chiefly to make the most of the R-rating. By contrast, Del Toro’s brand of existential Lovecraftian dread suited the material down to a T, and was far more impactful than this, even in family-friendly PG-13 form. All in all, Marshall’s effort is a squandered opportunity on every level.
Hellboy | Directed by Neil Marshall (US, 2019), with David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Sasha Lane. Starts April 11.