Intriguing Mexican vampire meets the Mona Lisa at the Charles

July 15, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Imagine if by wild chance the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel had fallen on hard times in the late '50s and signed on to direct horror movies at Britain's classy but gory Hammer studios. Well, that's pretty much the recondite thrill offered in "Cronos," an imaginative Mexican vampire movie that opens today at the Charles.

Written and directed by a self-styled bad boy of Mexican cinema, Guillermo Del Toro, it's built around a standard horror movie trope, the quest for eternal life. It seems that in the 17th century a Spanish alchemist fleeing the Inquisition showed up in Mexico in possession of a strange device that provided eternal life.

He died in an earthquake in 1937; his estate went into storage and, years later -- that is, now -- a clock, containing the device, turns up in a Mexico city antiques shop. The aging antiques dealer suspects he's onto something big. At the same time, a dying industrialist, who has recovered the alchemist's journals, is trying desperately to recover the device. His agent is his hulking American nephew, played by Ron Perlman.

The movie is extremely well thought out. For example, the "device," which looks like a large gold locket, is both metaphorically and literally insectoid in design. Grasped, it projects leg-like spines and seizes its prey. Inside, it's an actual being, some kind of immortal larva seen seething glutinously through whirring, meshing gears: The movie even bothers to suggest an actual principle by which it works, which is as a kind of blood filter. It's a gold bug crossed with an eternal-life dialysis machine!

But in form, the film juxtaposes two narratives: Perlman's brutal hunt for the device at his uncle's behest, and the antiques dealer's attempt to understand the meaning of the device and understand what's happening to him and why, once bitten, he feels much younger and stronger except for a strange hunger for something warm, red, liquid and sticky.

The Argentine actor Federico Luppi plays the dealer, and enjoys a possibly not fortuitous resemblance to Peter Cushing, who starred in so many of the Hammer films. It's also nice to see a film where the good guy is an older man, not some muscle-bound stud who kicks butt to get things done.

I should point out -- if the Hammer metaphor doesn't convey the message -- that the film contains some explicit gore and violence.

*

The second feature at the Charles this week is "Spike & Mike's Festival of Animation '94," another animation anthology of the sort that have proven so popular in art venues across America.

I was unable to see the whole film; I did see three shorter pieces on a sample reel, and to extrapolate from their quality I would have to say that this looks quite promising. As a general rule, the "Spike & Mike" series tends to have a bit more edge than the more mainstream "Tournees of Animation," a competing series. That was true of the films I saw.

Of the three, two were outstanding and one amusing, if a bit long. "The Wrong Trousers" is a 28-minute, unbelievably elaborate and vivid Claymation piece that parodies the jewel caper films of yore. The second, "Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase," the least satisfying, traced the history of art through a sinuous route beginning with the "Mona Lisa" and finishing with "Nude Descending a Staircase." In one sheer torrent of color, the paintings in between glide by, form from chaos, transmute into ++ other paintings, and just keep on trucking. Fascinating but not very dramatic.

The absolute knockout of the package was called "Screenplay," and the screen in the title is silk, as in Japanese, not on paper, as a blueprint for a movie. It turns out to be a classical Japanese story of medieval love, death and violence among the samurai and the ladies of the court as acted out in stop-motion by amazingly prehensile dolls dressed in elaborate costumes. It's amazing how much dynamism and drama can be achieved by fluid storytelling, a completely believable set of actors (OK, so they're made out of plastic and 6 inches tall) and brilliant effects.

"Cronos"

Starring Federico Luppi and Ron Perlman

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

Released by October Films

Unrated

***

"Spike & Mike's Festival of Animation 1994"

Animated collection

Various directors

Released by Festival Films

Unrated

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