Bela Lugosi may have made it look easy, but being one of the undead, “Cronos” insists, is hardly a simple thing. It can be a lonely state, painful but also crazily comic in a charming if grotesque way. It’s all on view in this pleasant and spooky film that gives surprising new life, so to speak, to a genre that won’t die.
The first feature by 29-year-old Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro, “Cronos” exemplifies the good things that can happen when adventurous filmmakers choose to investigate traditional forms. Winner of both the Critics Week competition at Cannes and nine Ariels, Mexico’s Academy Awards, “Cronos” surprises with its sophisticated and spirited look at a tale straight from the crypt.
“Cronos” opens with a prologue, detailing the strange history of an alchemist who fled the Spanish Inquisition to Veracruz in 1536 in order to continue working on his plans for a machine that granted eternal life, a machine he called the Cronos Device. Four hundred years later, the alchemist dies in a freak accident and though his mansion and its contents are sold, the portentous narrator informs, no mention was ever made of this device and “as far as anyone knew, it never existed.”
Existing as well without any knowledge of all this is Jesus Gris (Frederico Luppi), a gray-haired antiques dealer in today’s Veracruz who lives perhaps too quietly with his wife (Margarita Isabel) and his mostly silent granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath).
One day, his attention drawn to a figure of an archangel in his shop, Jesus discovers a wondrous mechanical gold egg inside, an impressively elaborate mechanism that makes a fine, creaky sound when it’s wound up and also does strange and insidious things to its owner once it is fully operational.
Before he can figure out quite how it works, Jesus and the device attract the attention of the sinister De la Guardias. Though concerned, in one of the film’s many oddball touches, with a forthcoming nose job, nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) is basically the muscle, following the orders of his obsessed uncle Dieter (Claudio Brook).
A Howard Hughes type, Dieter lives in a germ-free environment, listening to opera and dreaming of life eternal. Forty years earlier, Dieter found the Cronos Device’s instruction manual and now he wants the item itself, which he warns Jesus, should never be used without proper guidance. But Jesus, already addicted to the machine’s frightening, hypnotic actions, cannot turn back.
With this as the buildup, “Cronos” goes on to tell the story of how Jesus deals both with the De la Guardias and the device, which, we gradually and deliciously come to understand, is turning him into a vampire.
It is a mark of what makes this old-fashioned story so clever that this realization does manage to sneak up on us. Director Del Toro takes pleasure in turning the familiar horror story inside out, dispensing with the evil vampire of legend and concentrating on how an understandable desire for youth leads an average citizen into decidedly irregular paths.
One of “Cronos’ ” most characteristic features is its fondness for over-the-top Grand Guignol scenes that both graphically and comically illustrate the wear and tear of vampiredom, how bad it is for the complexion, for instance, how grueling and tiring it can be not to die even when circumstances make you wish for it.
Though veteran Latin American star Luppi gives a poignant and amusing performance as a man trapped by his obsession, the real centerpiece of this film is writer-director Del Toro, who’s made a droll film out of what is often exploitation material. Edgar Allan Poe with a sense of humor, Del Toro not only has fun mixing genres, he knows how to convey his enjoyment and make the result distinctly his own. With any luck he’ll have a creative life as long as any vampire’s.
* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes considerable gore of the horror variety as well as scenes of physical violence.
Frederico Luppi: Jesus Gris
Ron Perlman: Angel De la Guardia
Claudio Brook: Dieter De la Guardia
Margarita Isabel: Mercedes Gris
Tamara Shanath: Aurora Gris
A Producciones Iguana production, in association with Ventana Films, released by October Films. Director Guillermo del Torro. Producers Bertha Navarro, Arthur Gorson. Screenplay Guillermo del Torro. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. Editor Raul Davalos. Costumes Genoveva Petitpierre. Music Javier Alvarez. Production design Tolita Figueroa. Art director Brigitte Broch. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
* At the Edwards Town Center in Costa Mesa.