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By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 22, 1994


Guillermo del Toro
Federico Luppi;
Ron Perlman;
Claudio Brook;
Tamara Shanath
Not rated

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Guillermo del Toro's "Cronos" may take a while to catch up at the box office with fellow Mexican director Alfonso Arau's hit "Like Water for Chocolate." For one thing, "Cronos" has just opened stateside (it's currently at the Key). But the critically acclaimed film -- winner of the Grand Prize during Critics' Week at last year's Cannes Festival, and of nine Golden Ariels, Mexico's equivalent of the Oscars -- is helping herald Mexico as a new player in the international film world. Two films don't make a New Wave, but they clearly are causing ripples.

At $2 million, "Cronos" is the second-highest budgeted film in the history of Mexican cinema -- after "Chocolate." Unlike that mystical-sensual tragicomedy, though, "Cronos" is a horror genre film about vampires -- but one so well conceived and executed that it satisfies both mainstream and art-film expectations. It's also an amazingly assured feature debut for the 29-year-old del Toro, who is both its writer and director.

In the film, a mysterious golden buglike object -- the Cronos Device -- bestows regained youth and eternal life upon Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), a shriveled antiques dealer who finds it hidden in the statue of an archangel. Concurrently, a terminally ill Argentine industrialist desperately searches for the device after discovering the diary of the 14th-century alchemist who built it. He sends his American nephew, Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman), to steal it from Jesus.

As these names suggest, there is an element of religious allegory to "Cronos" -- del Toro describes himself as a quiet atheist in a fiercely Roman Catholic country. There is also a light touch of political satire, but more than anything, the film is a poetic exploration of the perils of immortality. It is clearly horror, but just as decidedly art.

Del Toro has been proudly committed to the horror genre since being frightened -- not to death, but into filmmaking -- when he saw an episode of "The Outer Limits." At the time, he was a 3-year-old in Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city. Del Toro made his first film -- a Super-8 fantasy featuring "Planet of the Apes" action figures and ketchup -- at age 8. He moved to 16mm at 17, then studied screenwriting and interned with veteran director Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, eventually writing and directing episodes for "Hora Marcada," a top-rated Mexican variation on "The Twilight Zone." One story involved zombies who wear happy-face masks working in a restaurant; when the zombies decayed too much to serve dinner, they became dinner for unsuspecting diners.

His own tastes were always much finer. He grew up with the classic horror legacy of America's Universal Studios and England's Hammer Films. And, he says, today's horror fare leaves him unsatisfied and uninspired: "For me, most of them right now have the big disadvantage of being dehumanizing. As much as I love the genre, I don't feel we are witnessing the best time for horror. People become ciphers, victims to be written off. Most of the time, a film doesn't even dwell into any human issue -- it's just a gore-fest. It's not even fun -- and when it is fun, it's very raunchy." He adds that he actually wanted his film to be "almost schmaltzy, really sweet and syrupy at times."

Perspectives change with time, del Toro concedes. "I remember when Hammer films were out -- they were considered disgusting, dehumanizing and gory. Now you see they're very tame and quite attractive in their thematic angles. {Director} Terence Fisher and others often created good monsters surrounded by strange human beings. And that was the idea I had for 'Cronos' -- to create a fantasy about a monster that is really the most vulnerable, humane character."

Which, the director concedes, means adopting a morally ambiguous position, "not having good and evil divided in such a way that you get black and white, but creating a gray area in which real horror and real fantasy grow. For example, in 'Cronos,' the good guy executes some actions that are completely reprehensible. In the same vein, one of the bad guys {Angel} is really nothing but an innocent child in a big man's body who has been abused into being a violent thug. And at first the Device looks evil -- but when you go inside, you notice another victim, a trapped insect who may be the ultimate victim."

Del Toro clearly enjoys turning genre conventions on their head, and that's true even of the Cronos Device. He pulls out a small loose-leaf book crammed with page after page of fine writing and detailed sketches, including plans for the Device, which looks like a cross between a Faberge egg and an Egyptian scarab. It reflects several del Toro obsessions, from small mechanized dolls created for European courts in the 14th and 15th centuries to a '70s fad for " 'living jewelry,' beetles in beautiful metallic settings -- with chains drilled to their bodies. They could live for a week, crawling on your chest, and then they'd die. I thought that was really cruel." He was also fascinated with acarids, ticklike spiders that del Toro calls "the real vampires."

But the biggest challenge, del Toro says, was to "reinvent a vampire legend from a new perspective that would allow me to show the vampire in the light of everyday life."

And in "Cronos," he's done just that. The gift of immortality becomes a pawn between one man who comes to regret it -- "it's painful to be alive, I feel deprived of everything," says Jesus -- and another who remains desperately covetous. The distance between wanting to live and wanting to die has seldom been concurrently so narrow and so wide. Del Toro knows which side of the equation he comes down on: He thinks eternal life is "a nuisance ... living forever is just an addiction."

Despite the vampire theme, there is not much blood in "Cronos," which may help explain how it was able to snag nine Ariels (including best film, best first film and best screenplay) and avoid the burden of genre limitations. When it opened in Mexico City and Guadalajara last December, its box office grosses far outpaced some American movies opening that week, including "The Fugitive."

"I think the film will attract and be appreciated more by a non-genre audience than by hard-core horror fans, who tend to be narrow-minded," says del Toro. "We said from the beginning that this is not a horror film that is out to scare you."

It is, though, a film where actors speak both Spanish and English. "I know how lazy American audiences are to read subtitles," del Toro says with a chuckle, "and this blending makes 'Cronos' almost an unsubtitled movie." There is an all-Spanish version (in which del Toro himself dubbed the voice of Angel de la Guardia). Ironically, the all-Spanish version was made for the Latin American market in the United States; in Mexico, it's the dual-language version, which del Toro prefers, that's shown.

Though Mexico has long been at the center of the Latin American film world, it now produces only 12 to 20 films per year. And despite the success of "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Cronos," del Toro says his native film industry is actually "at its worst moment in history." He points out that only 3 percent of the films shown in Mexico are Mexican-made and even then, "they just give you the chance to {be shown} between 'Free Willy' and 'Addams Family Values.' Exhibitors are tough -- they just want American movies and to make a buck, which is one of the big reasons our industry is dying. How can distributors go ahead when it's hard to get exposure in our own natural market?"

The United States has 40 million Spanish speakers. So when "Cronos" opened in Los Angeles a while back, the American distributor, October Films, spread its promotional budget between Spanish-language media and American art-house organs; 10 theaters offered the film dubbed completely in Spanish, and seven the dual-language, subtitled original (the one showing at the Key).

Things didn't work out as planned.

According to October's Jeff Lipsky, there's a huge audience here "that will not go to see anything with subtitles, whether French, Spanish or Swedish. And just as most Americans don't go to see subtitled movies, most Spanish-speaking Americans will not go to see subtitled movies. Despite our best efforts to reach that segment, the response in L.A. was fairly lackluster. But the {original} film did very well with audiences that go to see cutting-edge, stylized cinema from anywhere in the world."

Lipsky agrees with del Toro that "there is no emerging 'New Mexican Cinema.' 'Like Water for Chocolate' succeeded the way it did because it was a great motion picture and a beautiful costume piece, aided and abetted by a best-selling book, that happened to incorporate into its fabric sex and food, which have always been very promotable themes.

"As for 'Cronos,' it's not part of a nationalistic trend, but a unique and bizarre hybrid of a number of themes, many of which are very commercial and have been over the decades. {Horror} has always been a sure-thing genre for American filmmakers; there's no reason it can't be for Mexican filmmakers."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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