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In Hannibal Lecter's footsteps

German filmmaker Christian Alvart offers a fresh take on serial killers in `Antibodies.'

February 16, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

The German psychological thriller "Antibodies" owes more than a little to serial killer procedurals such as "Manhunter" and "The Silence of the Lambs" but is nonetheless a better-than-average entry, buoyed by a strong cast and writer-director Christian Alvart's ability to refresh genre conventions.

Wotan Wilke Mohring stars as Michael Martens, a pious small-town police officer and farmer haunted by the killing of a young girl, a friend of his teenage son. Martens goes to Berlin hoping to link the murder to serial killer Gabriel Engel (Andre Hennicke), who is suspected in more than a dozen other slayings and is apprehended in an intense opening sequence that establishes a menacing tone that Alvart exploits throughout the film.

Engel is an archetypal movie psycho, directly descended from Hannibal Lecter, reveling in the artistry of his work. He dismisses Jack the Ripper and Charles Manson as slackers and torments the city cops with his self-perceived superiority. Hennicke, a gaunt-faced actor with piercing, deep-set eyes, gleefully hisses his way through the role.

As Engel seemingly opens up to Martens, it becomes clear that the mind games are taking their toll on the farmer. Mohring is excellent as the conflicted Martens, gradually showing the toll that his Catholicism and the provincialism of the village are taking on him.

Alvart allows the plot twists to emerge from his characters rather than arbitrarily imposing them. The result is that even though the basic setup is overly familiar, the Martens character feels refreshingly complex. In the other prominent role, Heinz Hoenig is particularly good as Seiler, the city detective who uses Martens for his own means.

It's not surprising that Paramount snapped up Alvart to direct the thriller "Case 39," starring Renee Zellweger, scheduled to be released this year. He deftly exploits the tension in "Antibodies," showing a reverence for suspense rather than the cheap shocks that too often are the sole source of frights in many contemporary genre films.

Although Alvart lays on the biblical allegory too heavily at times, the film's pace is brisk enough to maintain our full attention. "Antibodies" is not so much an art house movie as a well-made, commercial thriller that happens to be in German.

"Antibodies." MPAA rating: Unrated. In German with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. Exclusively at Mann's Beverly Center Cinemas, at Beverly and La Cienega boulevards, Los Angeles, (310) 652-7760.

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