The Hellboy Animated Movies Make Perfect Halloween Viewing
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Recently, the first footage from the new Hellboy movie, due out next April, was revealed at New York Comic Con to rave reactions. Because it is Shocktober, when we are obligated to consider all things horror, I thought it would be worth looking back at the two Hellboy movies that were released about ten years ago.
No. Not those Hellboy movies. The other two Hellboy movies.
Helmed by Tad Stones, the creator of Darkwing Duck, two animated Hellboy films were released in 2006 and 2007. Originally intended to be a continuing series, similar to the DC universe’s Original Animated Movies, only two were actually made: Sword of Storms (2006) and Blood and Iron (2007). I am a huge fan of the live-action Hellboy movies, directed by Guillermo Del Toro, but these animated films are a fun, different take on the series.
It is not entirely clear if the animated films share a universe with the two live-action movies, but Stones’ films seem to be set somewhere between Del Toro’s two films. Maintaining the continuity, Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, and Doug Jones reprise their roles in both animated movies, and John Hurt returns to voice Trevor Bruttenholm in Blood and Iron. Even if they do share continuity (and a sardonic sense of humor) with their live-action counterparts, the animated films have a different tone from Del Toro’s movies. Whereas the live-action films are, for the most part, superhero movies with an occult twist, the animated ones lean more heavily into the horror aspects of the property.
Sword of Storms
This first film draws its inspiration from Japanese folklore. A pair of demon brothers, Thunder and Lightning, were terrorizing feudal Japan when a powerful Daimyo struck a deal where he would give his daughter to them if they left his lands in peace. The demons agreed, but a samurai who was in love with the daughter tried to fight them off with an enchanted sword; the confrontation goes badly for all parties involved, but it ends with the demon brothers trapped within the sword for several centuries.
In the present day, the demons manage to possess a professor of Japanese folklore and seek to break the sword, freeing them to return to the physical world. Hellboy finds the sword and is transported to a mystical realm where he fights a series of Japanese folklore-inspired monsters trying to steal and break the sword for the demons.
The film leans heavily on its Japanese influences. The sequence that explains the backstory of the demons is animated in a style reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints; the sequence is striking and manages to pay homage to the Japanese style while blending the style into the world of Hellboy.
The monsters in the spirit realm are inspired by Japanese folklore. The monsters he encounters include the vampire-like Nukekubi, the river monster Kappa, and, inspired directly by one of Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s 19th century block prints, a Gashadokuro, or giant skeleton. These sequences all work quite well as mini-horror stories in their own right, but the best (and creepiest) by far is a fight with a spider-woman, inspired in part by the Japanese tale of the Jorōgumo.
The story follows an episodic structure that finds Hellboy encountering monster after monster. In the commentary Stones says that this structure was meant to be similar to Alice in Wonderland, but it also makes the film feel like an animated version of Masaki Kobayashi’s Japanese horror masterpiece, Kwaidan (1964).
The entire film embraces horror in a way the live-action films mostly steered clear of. The violence is still PG-13, but it is a very creepy, and at times unsettling PG-13. The movie is a bit weak in plot, perhaps. As mentioned above, it is very episodic, but the episodes themselves are so stylish that it doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable.
Blood and Iron
Moving from Japan to Eastern Europe, the second animated Hellboy movie focuses on John Hurt’s Professor Bruttenholm. The story is set in both 1939 and the present day. In the flashback scenes (presented in reverse chronological order), Bruttenholm hunts a female vampire, Erzebet Ondrushko, who is killing the young women of her village in an attempt to maintain her youth. He succeeds in killing her, but seventy years later a pair of witches tries to resurrect her. Hellboy and the rest of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) are sent to investigate a haunted estate that seems connected to the old vampire.
The story has two major influences. The first is a Hellboy comic arc, 1996’s Wake the Devil. The second is the oldest vampire novel in western literature, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, based in part on the historical account of the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory. Like Carmilla, Erzebet preys on the young, virginal women of her village, and like Báthory she bathes in their blood to maintain her youth. The lesbian subtexts are downplayed in the PG-13 film, but they are still hinted at.
As with Sword of Storms, the film is much creepier than the live-action films, here riffing off of Eastern European vampire legends rather than Japanese folktales. Erzebet’s introduction, which finds her clinging unnaturally to the ceiling of her castle, is a truly disturbing image. The film does a good job of maintaining the chills when it moves to the haunted estate in Long Island, and the black magic used by a pair of witches attempting to resurrect their mistress is unsettling. The movie makes particularly excellent use of shadows to portray some body horror sequences later in the film. Here Stones shows himself to be quite good at drawing horror from what he hides from the audience.
In some ways the second movie is stronger than the first. Whereas the first is a bit disjointed, filled with filler episodes (even if they are delightfully chilling filler episodes), Blood and Iron has a clear narrative through line involving Bruttenholm’s decades-old conflict with Erzebet. None of the characters really get an arc in Sword of Storms, but in the second movie, Hellboy, Bruttenholm, and a third character I will not spoil, all grow throughout the story. That said, it does feel a bit like two stories slapped together. While Bruttenholm is fighting Erzebet, Hellboy battles Hecate, goddess of witchcraft. The latter’s conflict is never as fully fleshed out as his mentor’s, and feels as though it was tacked on to give Hellboy something to do in the movie.
Still, the minor issues in these two films do not make them any less enjoyable. They are both fun, creepy little horror stories that are well worth the watch. This being the Halloween season, you could do far worse than tracking down a copy (you can get both in a set for under $10) and giving them a shot.
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