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A Shudder of the Soul

Cronos makes something new from old-fashioned horror

The Mexican horror film may well have been the spiritual ancestor of the Halloween and Jason splatter movies of the '70s and early '80s. The Mexican movies of the 1960s generally thrived on the same sensationalism and cheap, gory effects that produce more yucks than shudders. In fact, the Mexican films (along with the Italian horror movies and the British Hammer series) were among the first to realize that the "shudder" had gone out fashion, replaced by a sort of involuntary muscle response to a gruesome stimulus. When blood squirts, we don't shudder. We cringe. The shudder is a deeper effect: it acknowledges a degeneration of the soul, rather than of the body.

It's hard to fault makers of horror films for giving up on wrenching the soul; modern times, from Auschwitz to Kampuchea to Rwanda, have overshadowed anything they could think to put up onscreen. And attempts at more psychologically engaging horror films have generally foundered anyway. By now, monsters, or at least self-proclaimed "freaks," walk the noontime street. Put David Bowie in a vampire movie, and you've simply got David Bowie in a vampire movie. No transformation is required, and the result, The Hunger, falls flat. With Bowie's older compatriot, Boris Karloff, you always had the sense of the British gentleman, the William Henry Pratt, behind the monster.

Of course, filmmakers who are true to their own visions are able to pick their way through the littered horror field and create dramas of the soul. But the two most prominent of these, the Davids Cronenberg and Lynch, are more likely to produce vomiting than a shudder. They've run out of sympathy for their monsters, and so they either make them darkly funny, as Lynch did with Dennis Hopper's Frank in Blue Velvet, or thoroughly and doubly repulsive, as Cronenberg did with his deadly gynecologists in Dead Ringers.

So the gothic elegance of the recently released Cronos, a rather touchingly old-fashioned horror film by the young Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, comes as a near total surprise. (The language is so debased by thrills that I almost called it a "shock.") In the rich, nostalgic golds of its cinematography and in its tender concern for its hero's immortal soul, Cronos feels like a discovery from the Cocteau vault, albeit one with an enhanced, and very Mexican, Catholicism. Cronos is so pleasingly anachronistic that it revives the long-abandoned debate as to whether "horror film" is too limited a term. That's an appropriate question for The Bride of Frankenstein, but not for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or even the vastly superior The Howling. And it's an appropriate question for Cronos, a "horror" movie from which you'll scarcely want to avert your eyes.

In fact, this film is essentially sweet, with a sort of early-Spielberg feel. This summer, Jack is back, this time as a werewolf, but apparently Wolf will raise the same old questions about hurting the ones we love. Will Nicholson tear Pfeiffer limb from limb? I'll watch Wolf with an open mind, but the love story in Cronos -- of an almost fantastically accepting love between a grandfather and his granddaughter -- is so old, so close to Heidi, that it feels more fresh and adventurous than the darker musings of the standard fright film.

Del Toro opens Cronos with a masterful sweep. In the pre-credit sequence we meet an unnamed alchemist who is expelled from Spain by the Inquisition. Once in Mexico, he begins work on a life-prolonging machine, an elaborate, golden, egg-shaped device. The film then flashes forward 400 years, to when the alchemist's marbleized body is discovered in a collapsed vault. With him lies a book that spells out the secret of his partial immortality, but the device that gave it to him is gone.

The discoverer of book and body is a wealthy industrialist, Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brooks, once Luis Bunuel's Mexican actor of choice), who lives in a Howard Hughes-inspired isolation. He's dying of something -- or of everything, as half of his vital organs lie on pickled display. The alchemist's diary extends him the promise of longer life through bugs -- there's an unidentifiable insect (which evokes, of course, Poe's own golden bug) in the heart of the immortality device -- but without the machine itself, the promise is empty. As for the machine, that's turned up in the antiques shop of the suave and thoroughly likable Jesus Gris (that's Gray Jesus to you). De la Guardia's nephew and beastly henchman, Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman), is dispatched to buy the machine, but before he shows up, Gris (the Argentine Federico Luppi) accidentally turns it on.

The egg painfully clamps itself onto his wrist, then pokes a needle into a vein, connecting Gris to the insect inside. In a striking sequence, del Toro's camera looks inside the device. He makes its inner workings fill the screen, implying that the machine is its own complete world. Golden gears, bathed in a golden light, spin as if recently greased, then reverse their motion, perhaps first pumping Gris' life in, then sending another life back out. That second life belongs to the insect inside; the camera sneaks up on it as it throbs inside the gears.

Gris pries the device off in pain and fear. Aurora, his small granddaughter, watches in silent terror and, in a striking echo of The Piano (if mute characters can be said to "echo"), remains silent, except for one mournful "Grandfather," for the rest of the film.

Gris looks too sensible and content to want to extend his life unnaturally, but the bug has already struck. In the film's central irony, he gets the medicine that de la Guardia is so desperate for. By temper-ament, Gris would likely agree with Angel's assessment of his uncle -- "all he does is shit and piss all day and he wants to live forever!" -- but now he's got the craving. The bite makes him itch like a madman, and gives him a thirst that only blood can satisfy. Yes, we're suddenly in vampire territory.

It's a tribute to the strength of del Toro's narration that this shift doesn't feel clumsy. And because we meet Gris in his pre-monster condition as kindly grandfather, the fact that he now craves blood is strangely touching, rather than horrifying. Del Toro has good fun with the contrast between Gris' pre- and post-bug life. At an elegant New Year's Eve party, for example, the tuxedoed Gris lies down on a marble bathroom floor to lick up the droppings from a nosebleed.

I've called Cronos old-fashioned, but it's also contemporary in all the right ways. Del Toro and Luppi spare us the cliches about Gris' revulsion at drinking blood, or at the bad form he shows on the bathroom floor. He's simply hooked, with no need for recrimination.

Del Toro also serves up plenty of the dark humor that the American horror classics of the '30s thrived on. As Tito the mortician, Daniel Gimenez Cacho has a spectacular five minutes. Accompanied by a salsa tune, he preens as he prepares a corpse for its final viewing -- "You have to be a fucking artist," he declares. Perlman also has some funny moments as the film's updated version of Igor. His uncle wants immortality; he'd just like a nose job.

Del Toro also shows a sure, light touch in his treatment of grandfather and granddaughter. When her abuelo shows up looking like the walking corpse that he is, Aurora (a cute name for a vampire's descendant) doesn't even blink. Young Tamara Shanath's performance is totally dependent on the depth in her eyes and the expressiveness of her body language, and those do everything to convince us of how much she loves her grandfather.

And Gris has a line that has both humor and mythic weight when, as the unintentionally undead one, he says his name with considerable gravity: "I am Jesus... Gris," I am the Gray Jesus, as if it were more a statement of his condition than a simple name.

That's not to say that Cronos never wobbles. Del Toro is considerably better on atmospherics and characterization than he is on story. In the film's climactic scenes, when de la Guardia and Gris wrangle over the fate of the immortality machine, he isn't altogether clear on everyone's motivations. But that's a minor flaw in the most pleasing film I've seen this year.

Cronos.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro. With Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook and Tamara Shanath.

Not rated.
92 minutes.

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