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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 20, 1994


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

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Like the blues, vampire movies have been defined by their great old men -- toothy patriarchs such as Bela Lugosi and Max von Schreck. But there's always room for new blood. "Cronos," an enormously enjoyable gothic yarn from Mexico, transfuses the genre with wry grotesquerie, but retains respect for the old, classic films.

Although it indulges in '90s camp, "Cronos" doesn't feel slickified and modish in the manner of Kathryn Bigelow's "Near Dark" or Joel Schumacher's "The Lost Boys." It feels authentically ancient, with an evocative, musty appreciation for the mysteries of resurrection, the state of undeath and -- thanks to director Guillermo del Toro's special-effects studio -- a corporeal reverence for death and decay. Once central character Jesus Gris joins the host of vampires, his skin really rots. "Cronos" is a wonderful oxymoron: serious fun.

Jesus (Federico Luppi), an aging antique dealer in Mexico City, comes across a wooden figurine that contains the Cronos, the world's most dangerous clockwork toy. Created by an alchemist in the 16th century, the gold, beetle-shaped object houses a larval being that operates its inner cogs. As Jesus discovers, this device -- which literally bites the hand that winds it -- is capable of inducing suffering or eternal life. Pincered by the Cronos, he's hooked for life.

Unfortunately for the old man, Dieter (Claudio Brook), a wealthy, equally aged industrialist with a terminal disease, wants the Cronos too. Dieter's wishes are served by Angel (Ron Perlman), his burly, sartorially correct nephew, who travels light and kills on command.

A protracted struggle ensues, as Jesus and his serene, beatific granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath), resist the rich and hostile. If the story loses momentum toward the end, it is constantly powered by the sustained atmosphere and the cast members' impeccable performances. As Jesus, Luppi (picture an Argentinian Martin Landau) assumes the Nosferatu mantle with touching dignity. When -- in the movie's most memorable moment -- he sees a puddle of blood on a men's room floor, he lowers himself and hungrily laps like a hoary, elegant cat.

Perlman, best known to American audiences for his role in TV's "Beauty and the Beast" and a supporting appearance in "The Name of the Rose," makes a fabulous heavy. As Angel de la Guardia, a warthog-featured creature who dreams of the perfect nose job, he is constantly suffering bloodied noses -- thanks to various scufflings with Jesus and Dieter. Daniel Gimenez Cacho creates an unforgettable cameo as a gum-chewing, radio-listening, self-impressed coroner given the job of dressing up the apparently deceased Jesus.

But the biggest plaudits of all go to del Toro, a 29-year-old filmmaker from Guadalajara, who produced this work with a combination of government money, private donations and credit cards. He made this $2 million film -- which swept Mexico's Ariels, the country's equivalent of the Oscars -- look like $5 million more, and he has raised the corpuscular count of the vampire movie to an even higher level.

"Cronos" in Spanish and English with subtitles, is unrated and contains violent, bloody material.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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