The troubled production of 2019’s Hellboy

David Harbour as Hellboy in Hellboy (2019)
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In 2019, a long-awaited Hellboy reboot was released to an overwhelming sense of disappointment – what exactly went so wrong?

Few older-skewing comic book characters have entered the public zeitgeist in the way that Mike Mignola’s demon detective Hellboy has. From the first issue in 1993, Mignola’s unique style has inspired countless artists, and the character’s live-action adventures (2004’s Hellboy and 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army) cemented director Guillermo del Toro’s reputation as a blockbuster auteur. However, despite many attempts by del Toro and star Ron Perlman, raising funds for a third film proceeded to be fruitless.

The Golden Army had made a profit, but it wasn’t the smash hit that distributor Universal Pictures had hoped for, and studios were reluctant to meet del Toro’s imaginative – and expensive – vision for another outing without serious compromise. After almost a decade of anticipation, producers finally reached out to the Oscar-favourite filmmaker and offered to go ahead with the sequel – but not on his terms.

They wanted him to produce a smaller-scale script written by Mignola and frequent collaborator Christopher Golden, and allow someone less well known to direct. Devastated, del Toro declined, and the search went elsewhere for a helmer. Upon hiring renowned British horror director Neil Marshall for the director’s chair, the producers decided to reboot the franchise altogether.

As it turned out, in 2017 Neil Marshall was in a similar situation to del Toro in terms of his own career. Known for his werewolves vs. soldiers action-packed debut Dog Soldiers (2002) and the acclaimed cave-diving horror The Descent (2005), the Newcastle-born filmmaker had been struggling to drum up studio interest for his script ideas.

The last feature film he’d made was 2010’s historical action Centurion, which was then followed by various television gigs, directing well-regarded episodes of NBC’s Hannibal (The Great Red Dragon), HBO’s Game Of Thrones (Blackwater and The Watchers By The Wall – the latter of which earned him an Emmy nomination), as well as directing and executive producing Netflix’s re-imagining of classic sci-fi series Lost In Space. But this offer, then-titled Hellboy: Rise Of The Blood Queen, had been his first chance in nine years to have his work released on the big screen.

The project was pitched to Marshall as not-your-average superhero film. He was promised an R-Rated, horror take on the material that would utilise his knowledge of making such films. So, with the blessing of Mignola, the declaration of a film closer to the original tone of the comic series, and a star-studded cast featuring Stranger Things leading man David Harbour in the title role and John Wick's Ian McShane as his adoptive father Professor “Broom” Bruttenholm, the project was finally moving forward. Whilst del Toro loyalists may not have been too excited for this reboot of their beloved franchise, there were murmurings of hope from fans of the source material, intrigued by the new take.

From watching the Blu Ray documentary Tales Of The Wild Hunt: Hellboy Reborn, it would be easy to think that the cast and crew were all working well together, with a singular vision of what the film could be. It showcases the special effects workshops and the painstaking effort that SFX maestro Joel Harlow and his crew took into making realistic, physical creatures. Likewise, costume designer Stephanie Collie took great effort to get as close as possible to bringing the costumes from comic panels and into the real world in a way that hadn’t been seen in the previous films. The cast and crew talk eagerly of their excitement for the project and their collective dedication to making something special.

But, sadly, their efforts would be somewhat in vain.

The first issue seems to have been the studio’s firing of Sam McCurdy, who had been the director of photography on all of Marshall’s previous features. Rumours have circulated that this was a direct show of power to Marshall, making it clear who was in charge. Whilst this has been denied by the producers’ attorney, it at least marked the first major clash on set – and losing his second-in-command can’t have been a great way to start Marshall’s biggest project to date.

Sadly it didn’t end there, as multiple reports from crew working on the film (showcased in a piece published by The Wrap in 2019, and later confirmed by Marshall himself) revealed just some of the interference that the director was subjected to by the producers, from constant interruptions and changes as he attempted to direct his cast and crew, to crucial set pieces being altered without his consent.

Things only got worse after production had wrapped. After completing a cut of his version of the film, Marshall was told by the producers that he had never been promised final cut on the project, who then moved ahead with their own edit of the film and blocked his involvement. Despite all the hard work of the special effects crew and production designers, the theatrical release of the film was caked in outdated, rushed CGI gore – sometimes completely replacing the completed on-set work.

A visual mess, the film quickly became a by-word for clumsy-looking CGI. Marshall has stated that those decisions were not his, and that he would have had as much of the effects work done practically as possible, which fits with his back catalogue. Dog Soldiers and The Descent are both stunning examples of what can be achieved with practical over digital effects. Likewise, star David Harbour has admitted on various occasions in the following years that, despite their best efforts to bring a Hellboy film fans would want to see, most of his hard work also ended up on the cutting room floor, and he believes that the final product as released has major problems.

Milla Jovovich as the Blood Queen in Hellboy (2019)

Hellboy premiered on 9th April 2019, and was immediately received with harsh criticism from audiences and critics, which was also reflected in its low box office returns. But, besides the inevitable comparison to the del Toro/Perlman series, what exactly are the issues with the final product?

The film opens with McShane’s voice, narrating a flashback scene of the film’s villain (Milla Jovovich’s Blood Queen) and setting up the stakes for the present day. The sequence, set in 517 A.D., briefly describes the Queen’s desire for total power, and how King Arthur was the man who was able to defeat her.

Straight away, the awkward editing makes it clear to an audience that this scene was meant to be much longer, and without the summary narration. In fact, watching the extended version of this opening scene (one of the only three deleted scenes to be released on the film’s home media release) shows a different story to what occurred on screen. No narration; instead there’s a lengthy exchange of dialogue in which the Queen offers Arthur her crown as a token of peace, but is then betrayed and murdered by King Arthur, Merlin and the Queen’s own sister.

Their actions are why she seeks revenge, as opposed to a vague notion of ‘true evil’. This alone drastically changes the motivation of the entire film, and adds depth and nuance to a frankly dull villain. It’s not unreasonable to presume the rest of the cast had their development axed in the editing.

The film we were sold was a dark, gritty, R-rated horror spin on the superhero film. The end result was not that.

Mignola said Harbour’s take on Hellboy would abandon the teenage rebellious angst of Perlman’s version, and instead be closer to the grizzled hard-boiled detective. But (in the final cut at least) the character is even more huffy and petulant than ever before – constantly bickering and making snippy comments to his father, Professor Bruttenholm. Also, the use of bad jokes and one-liners comes across as jarring to the action occurring on-screen; eagle-eyed viewers will notice a lot of these ‘jokes’ seem to happen when Hellboy’s back is turned, or when the camera is focused elsewhere, suggesting these ill-fitting lines were added in during ADR sessions by the studio.

This cut-and-shut approach is a similar scenario to the 2016 Warner Bros. film Suicide Squad, where director David Ayer has stated many times that his film was shot as a serious, gritty crime drama, but was then “bashed into a comedy” by the studio in order to appeal to general filmgoers, resulting in a piece that is tonally difficult to follow – exactly like Hellboy.

While del Toro took inspiration from the characters and general scenarios of the comics as a starting point to craft his own fantasy tale, the 2019 reboot instead loosely adapts key moments of the comics – which in theory is what loyal fans wanted. However, this approach lead to what feels almost like an anthology of short films, connected by the thinnest of plots to carry Hellboy from one to the next.

This is made doubly confusing by the quick-cutting, jumbled editing that feels strongly like ‘too many cooks’ syndrome. It’s an an interesting idea that shows the promise of a good adaptation, but one probably best suited to a television series, where there’s time to flesh out storylines more. Without the extended time-frame a series can offer, the film is constantly jumping from one tone to the next at breakneck speed with little cohesion at all.

Regardless, there are glimmers of a good film in there somewhere. The production design, costumes and practical effects are all stunning and unique to this version of the universe. David Harbour seems to have thrown himself into the role (apparently constantly messaging Mignola about the character during production). The set up is decent enough, and for comic fans there’s a lot of the tone of those books in there – especially in the wild hunt sequences – and of course, there is the reveal of fan-favourite Lobster Johnson’s cinematic debut.

But the studio’s stubbornness that audiences want an action-comedy with CGI fight sequences over a well-made superhero-horror film seems to be the main cause of the film’s end result. The studio that owns the film rights to the character seems to know very little about what makes him popular. It’s a shame we never got to see Neil Marshall’s Hellboy.

The series is set to once again be rebooted with a folk-horror adaptation of the story The Crooked Man, directed by Crank co-director Brian Taylor and scripted (for now) by series creator Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden. The film has been described as an “R-Rated horror” (where have we heard that before?) and will star Jack Kesy as the titular character. Hopefully this time the powers that be have learned the mistake of meddling in the franchise, and we get to see the return of the beloved character in theatres.

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