It's competent, efficiently put together and is even doing interesting things with its horror elements. If nothing else it's a more solid piece of work than its predecessor, Sword of Storms
, although it's still well below the quality level of the Guillermo del Toro movies.
It doesn't even really have any flaws. As far as I can see, the filmmakers achieved what they were aiming for. The nearest I get to a complaint is about its art style not being a particularly comfortable fit with the horror content and there wasn't much they could have done about that anyway. It's the second in a series and once you're past the simplified character designs, it looks great. It's set in a world of blood, darkness and dynamic computer-assisted animation. It's easy to watch. I'd even go so far as to say that there's some strong imagery here, with armies of skull-headed ghosts and a voluptuous vampire bathing in blood. I particularly appreciated the weeping statues, the handprints on the window and even the waxwork. She was spooky. Theoretically all this stuff is unnecessary to the telling of the story, but it makes such a difference to have it. The producers might even have been pushing the boundaries of what they could do on American TV, bearing in mind how much gore, death and nudity they've included.
Obviously I approve of all that... but even so, this material would have worked better in live-action. This animation style was a better fit with the Japanese folk tales in Sword of Storms
, whereas this time they're trying to make a horror film while looking like Scooby Doo.
We'll move on to the voice acting, which was a pleasant surprise. Doug Jones and especially Selma Blair have improved since the first film, I'm guessing because they must have listened to themselves in it and cringed. This time, Selma Blair's rather good. The best news of all though is John Hurt, who didn't appear last time and makes up for it by acting everyone else off the screen, even making a success of the opening narration. "There are things that go bump in the night. We're the ones who bump back." That could have been cringeworthy, but Hurt plays down the machismo and instead gives it a twinkle. The incidental characters are good too, with again the temporary team member outclassing the live-action stars (except Hurt). This time the newbie's a human metal detector. No, really. The only disappointment in the cast, oddly enough, is Ron Perlman, who was good in Sword of Storms
but seems to have been disillusioned by seeing the finished production and is just phoning it in this time.
We start with another gratuitous action scene that has nothing to do with anything, but fortunately this one's only a bit shit because the acting's not painful and the script isn't taking the piss with Liz Sherman. There's also a literate bit in which Hellboy says he's in a maze and immediately gets attacked by a minotaur. Hellboy's swearing annoyed me, though. Things improve after that, with a flashback to Professor Broom and some comrades getting torn to shreds by a vampire. It's a strong introduction, actually, with a medieval torture chamber and magical candles from Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete
. There are also wolves who eat people, accompanied by disgusting sound effects. Ewwwwww.
Scenes like that are where this film's at its best. It's never going to horrify us with mere gore, but it can get to us by playing on our imaginations. There's a memorable shot of an iron maiden, for instance. What's powerful about it isn't the door closing and the blood seeping out, but the despairing face of the woman inside.
That's where the film really gets going, with lots of juicy mythology. Again the script knows its forteana, for instance as with the reference to Ogopogo. I'll admit that I was mildly irritated when they reeled out that old saw of "it's not the cross that protects you against a vampire, but the faith of the person behind it", but this turns out to be relevant since one of the characters is a priest. We have troll-women, harpies, an army of ghosts and even Hecate, although they can't pronounce the latter. However the meatiest slab of mythology is their use of the Countess de Bathory. For some reason they've changed her name to Erzsebet Ondrushko, although in fairness that's how her Christian name is spelled in Hungary and I kept hearing different pronunciations anyway. Isabelle? Azabet? Urzabeth? As we all know, the real Bathory (1560-1614) is probably the most notorious female killer in history, with all sorts of stomach-turning habits that might always stay unfilmable despite her being in a gazillion movies since the 1970s. The one that started it off seems to have been Hammer's Countess Dracula
with Ingrid Pitt, oddly enough. This one is also a vampire and a high priestess of Hecate, but it's clearly her.
The movie's structure is interesting. It's set in two eras, the present day with Hellboy and the past in Transylvania in which John Hurt's friends die. The modern stuff proceeds conventionally, but the flashback scenes are in reverse order. The first flashback shows heroes being torn to shreds. The second scene is a pre-flashback flashback, in which the doomed men are saying brave things to each other as they prepare to enter the vampire's castle. The third scene is a pre-pre-flashback flashback flashback. You get the idea. This allows irony, with for instance our heroes' bad advice being what leads their loved ones to destruction. It's the usual Hammer vampire nonsense, really, going so far as to be set in Transylvania, but showing it in reverse order is what makes it interesting. We have tragedy, fate and heroes who die. All that I admired.
Coming up to date, I liked the regular team. Hellboy gets a bitch fight with Hecate, who's annoyed that he's siding with the mortals and thinks he's a traitor to his own kind. They haven't forgotten that he's doomed to destroy the earth, either. This series won't feel complete to me until we've seen these prophecies come to fruit. Meanwhile Professor Broom is bringing John Hurt into the cast, Liz Sherman is coming across far better this time and Abe Sapien is... well, actually he's a bit forgettable, but nobody's perfect. The team also get a fun scene back at HQ in which Manning's talking about missions to destroy the supernatural and they're more interested in doughnuts and coffee. Mind you, I was puzzled by the bit of the climax where Liz Sherman doesn't blast the villain because (I think) this would have also flame-grilled Hellboy. Wasn't he meant to be fireproof, or was that only in the second movie?
It's noticeable that all the villains are female. They sometimes even get naked, which deserves plaudits on general principle even if the Creepy Anime Fairy seems to have painted out their nipples and groins. One could draw comparisons between all these powerful women and the father-son relationship of Professor Broom and Hellboy, but that would probably be a stretch.
In its own way, this is a pretty good film. It does everything it wants to do and has some rather nice horror ideas, both in terms of atmosphere and its characters. Had it been live-action, I might have been going crazy for it. However on the downside, it's also in the category of action nonsense which begins and ends with Hellboy beating stuff up. Despite buying all of his DVDs to date, I'm not sure I'm particularly wild about the character and his stories. I'm only a big fan of the second movie, with everything else seeming a touch arbitrary to me. Big Red meets random weird stuff and beats the crap out of it. Why? Why not? Nevertheless Blood and Iron is still mildly impressive in its own way and I'd buy Hellboy: The Phantom Claw if the producers ever changed their minds about the series's financial prospects and put it back into production. I don't know if I'd go so far as to recommend buying this film, but horror fans at least should consider giving it a look.