BUDAPEST, Hungary — Think back, if you can, to the first time your mother ever took you to a toy store. Now, combine that with the memory of your first trip abroad. Finally, pretend that a pale, fanged, eyeball-winged Angel of Death was standing alongside you.
Welcome to the set of "Hellboy II: The Golden Army."
"This movie has been very free, much more free than the first one," insisted our tour guide, red-hot "Pan's Labyrinth" director Guillermo del Toro, when we flew to a huge Hungarian set and peeked inside his dark, twisted toy box during the film's final days. "You don't have to set up the rules of the world, so you're allowed to, frankly, have more fun."
For those who haven't seen the 2004 film that first brought comicdom's hell-spawn hero to the silver screen, del Toro reached for the stars while telling the tale of a surly rogue demon (Ron Perlman, under nearly as much makeup as Keira Knightley in "At World's End") employed by a secret U.S. organization called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Alongside pyrokinetic hottie Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), Mensa-eligible merman Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and others, the big guy continues to do his best to battle the baddies — and keep the war out of sight from our everyday existence.
"In both 'Pan's Labyrinth' and in here, there are many references to different types of fairy tales and the whole realm of a fallen prince coming back to reclaim a world that is fading," the charming-but-frantic del Toro explained between scenes, revealing that the plot has Hell erupting on Earth after an ancient truce between humans and monsters is broken. "There are some [fairy tale-like] things you'll see, and I've tried to give it a more fantasy feel, like 'The Wizard of Oz,' as we go to worlds as opposed to having creatures in our world. ... In the first movie, we have monsters living amongst us, and the difference is in this movie, you go where the wild things are."
These wild things include a werewolf, a strider (an enormous elephant with pointy, spider-like legs), a tooth fairy, trolls and all sorts of weird characters with names like Chamberlain (whose look is described as a thumb with eyes); Fragglewump (who has green, straggly hair that looks like dead plant stems); Berserker, and a sure-to-be-breakout character named Cathedral Head — whose skull looks like a church, complete with windows that light up.
Another eye-opener is Johann Krauss, a fan-favorite BPRD member from the comics, who is basically an old-school metallic character with steam and a light bulb representing the disembodied ectoplasmic spirit within his head. "We went with more of a containment-suit type of look," del Toro said of the character, adding that initial plans to computer-generate his noggin proved prohibitive. "We've used perspective and mirror tricks inside the helmet to keep the head disappeared."
The characters dwell in such places as an enormous underground sewer lair (constructed in an old Hungarian church), a hellacious chamber filled with stolen souls, and a barren wasteland strewn with screaming bodies crystallized into sand. But much like Hellboy's affinity for kittens, the story wouldn't be complete without a soft side.
"Princess Nuala is my name, and I am a half of a twin with my brother," explained beautiful newcomer Anna Walton, who is paired with Luke Goss ("Blade II") to form a yin/yang duo of siblings who kick off the film's plot. "We are a prince and princess, and our father is King Balor [Roy Dotrice, 'Swimming With Sharks'], and creatures of the Earth is what we are. My brother is the evil side, and I'm the good side, and he's trying to wade into war with mankind — and I'm trying to stop it."
In the meantime, Hellboy is dealing with his own demons, wrestling with the still-lingering memories of his deceased surrogate father Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt, returning in a flashback depicting a young Hellboy) and his living-in-sin arrangement with Liz.
"It's worked out about as well as my marriage in real life," Blair joked. "No, it's difficult living with someone, especially a guy that takes up as much room as Hellboy, with as many cats as Hellboy has. ... There's trouble with spending so much time with someone you love, after you're used to being alone and having your way. I use my power a little more in this one, so between my fire and his little-boy sloppy behavior, we're a mess. A lovable mess."
On this particular day, Hellboy and Liz are having a moment with the Angel of Death, in the dead realm of Methmora. Surrounded by jars filled with souls (he snacks on 'em), the horrific-looking Angel (also played by Jones) negotiates with Liz for Hellboy's life.
And here is your first of many warnings: The Angel himself will haunt your nightmares for days after you see the movie. Walking into the dank room and staring face-to-face with what might be del Toro's greatest creation yet, a white, lanky being with a sloped, empty face sizes you up. The creature comes to life when its massive wings open, revealing more than a dozen creepy, blinking eyes that stare down at you in unison.
Pants, consider yourself peed.
Just then, the mouth opens and out comes the warm voice of one of Hollywood's most cordial actors. "The concept of the Angel of Death, like most characters in the film, started as a little sketch pad from a sick mind," laughed Doug Jones, the physical actor who created Abe Sapien in "Hellboy"; the Pale Man and Pan in "Labyrinth"; and, most recently, the Silver Surfer. "['Hellboy' comic creator] Mike Mignola had some say in this, as well as many of the characters in this film."
"There's a goblin involved in this scene, and it shows the BPRD where to find me," Jones explained of the Angel. "And I'm also on the BPRD team [as Abe Sapien in the scene], so that's the confusing part. Abe and Liz and Hellboy get in here with the Goblin's help, and ... the Goblin has helped collect some of my [soul] specimens."
The scene is a pivotal one in the "Hellboy" franchise, as the actors and del Toro all frequently refer to imminent plans for a "Hellboy III," whose plot will largely revolve around the deal Liz makes with the Angel.
"I'm praying that the third one will come, because that would be the strongest one for my character," Blair explained. "The scene we're filming now really hints in the direction of what would happen to Liz and is inferring that she would suffer the most and that this choice is gonna come at a high price. ... For two people in love, and two people with powers, it's a really dramatic third story."
"Mike [Mignola] and I spoke. ... We hope that if there is a third one, it would be about Johann," del Toro said of the new character. "He plays a concrete function, which is the new guy that wants to bring order to the world of the BPRD. ... We're throwing lines out for that story, to take a little more center if there would be a third movie.
"Right now, I'm just making ['Hellboy II'] a good movie," the director laughed, looking forward to the film's July 11 release. "I hope that's enough, because it's killing me."
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