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Film review: Cronos

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 9 1994 12:00 a.m. MDT

An extremely bizarre cross of traditional vampire and zombie movies, with a bit of "Death Becomes Her" tossed into the mix, the Mexican film "Cronos" is hard to categorize. It's something of an artsy horror movie, if that's not an oxymoron.

Largely in Spanish with English subtitles, though there is a certain amount of English dialogue, the film begins with a purposely vague prologue that tells of a strange, egg-shaped golden scarab called "The Cronos Device," which promises eternal life — at a price.

Moving on to modern-day Mexico, we are introduced to the film's central character, Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), and his young granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath). They are investigating a new item in Jesus' antique shop, a statue of an archangel. Initially, they are put off by several cockroaches that emerge from its mouth. Then, after unscrewing the base, Jesus finds the scarab hidden away.

Turning a knob, which sets off the clocklike inner workings of the device, Jesus is surprised when it sprouts claws and digs into the flesh of his hand.

After a time, Jesus finds himself using the device again and again, as he begins to yearn for raw meat and blood. And later in the film, he becomes zombielike after being "killed" in a car crash, and his flesh starts peeling away, making way for a new, white, leathery layer of skin as he is "reborn."

Meanwhile, a mysterious Howard Hughes-like character, an elderly billionaire who is dying, has ordered his nephew-henchman (Ron Perlman, of TV's "Beauty and the Beast") to get the device. It seems he's been searching for it for some 40 years and has the only set of instructions for its proper use.

Plot is secondary, however, to atmosphere in this directing debut by 29-year-old filmmaker Guiller-mo del Toro, who has taken great pains to use set design and lighting in the telling of this strange tale. He also has a sense of humor, which is revealed subtly. But characters could have been better developed, and there are unanswered questions as the film winds down.

Hardly for everyone, fans of horror who are looking for something different will likely be the most pleased by this unique entry in the genre. And del Toro proves himself a talent to watch for in the future.

"Cronos" is not rated but would doubtless get an R for a fair amount of violence and gore, as well as some profanity.