WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Hellboy, now playing in theaters.
Director Neil Marshall's Hellboy features an abundance of villains, to the point of exhaustion. Whether knights with electric spears, man-eating giants, vampire luchadores, indestructible pig men or the denizens of hell itself, David Harbour's Hellboy must go through them to get to the Blood Queen, Nimue (Milla Jovovich).
But of all of the monsters standing in Hellboy's way, one stands out in a genuinely frightening and impressive sequence. After being dragged into a twisted fairy tale house, Hellboy's conversation, and confrontation, with Baba Yaya is one of the reboot's highlights. Voiced by Emma Tate and performed on-screen by Troy James, Baba Yag is so good, she should have been the film's primary antagonist.
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The Witch's Curse
Baba Yaga is introduced early in the film, as the strange seer with a grudge against Hellboy for taking one of her eyes in a previous encounter. She's immediately memorable as cruel and chilling-looking figure who gleefully introduces Gruagach (Stephen Graham) to the idea of resurrecting the Blood Queen. But it's her eventual scene with Hellboy that stands out.
After summoning Hellboy to her chicken-legged hut (from the Russian folktales), Baba Yaga invites him to dinner, where she tries to convince him she is the only hope he has to find Nimue before she can be restored to her full power. It's an unsettling sequence, punctuated by dark comedy. Hellboy is horrified by the meal and the way the witch has butchered humans for her food, but Baba Yaga argues it's only a few children in her soup. She tries to arrange a bargain for one of his eyes, and he reluctantly agrees. But he turns on her when he reveals that she didn't specify when she'd get the eye. That's when Baba Yaga goes full horror-movie monster.
Baba Yaga doesn't walk, she crawls. The physical performance by James is as good as anything in the previous Hellboy films, imbuing her with a shocking speed that makes her a genuine threat. In addition, the vocal performance Tate grants Baba Yaga an additional level of menace. Baba Yaga is funny, with distinct tics, and her animosity with Hellboy is rooted in history that's only hinted at onscreen, with a reference to her earlier attempt to raise the spirit of Joseph Stalin.
She's a more interesting villain than Nimue, and would have made for a more compelling antagonist. In part, that because of the scope of the threat. Nimue has an army of mystical creatures at her disposal, and her actions lead to hell cracking open and spreading onto the streets of London. It's so much, so fast, and none of it is given time to register with the audience. There's no emotional stakes in what she's doing, because the violence is completely unconnected to Hellboy and his mission.
However, the Baba Yaga scene plays up the horrors of even just a few dead people. While thousands (at least) are killed in London during the film's climax, Hellboy only needs to learn about the handful of children murdered by Baba Yaga before he becomes furious. The scene actually has tension, because Hellboy is invested in the enemy he's fighting. With Nimue, it's much more about his personal growth than any real rejection of her. Even when he turns on Nimue, it's more subdued -- or, rather, as subdued as it can be when you behead someone and then hurl them into hell. With Baba Yaga, it's a pure disdain for this horror character he has to deal with, and disgust at her twisted actions, which makes their moments together more lively.
It also helps that Baba Yaga is terrifying. Her sequence, especially once Hellboy turns on her, is the scariest of the film. She vanishes from sight only to attack with a pair of sickles. She proves to be an ideal villain for Hellboy, and it's a shame that Hellboy went full out with every idea the filmmakers could come up with instead of focusing on a singularly threatening and memorable foe like Baba Yaga.
In theaters nationwide, director Neil Marshall’s Hellboy stars David Harbour as Hellboy, Ian McShane as Trevor Bruttenholm, Milla Jovovich as Nimue, Sasha Lane as Alice Monaghan, Penelope Mitchell as Ganeida and Daniel Dae Kim as Ben Daimio.