‘Epitafios’ returns with a new face of evil

detectives track serial killer in Epitafios 2“The gates of hell are wide open tonight,” says the coroner, the busiest man in Buenos Aires.

The soaring body count signals the return of “Epitafios,” the brilliant and gruesome crime miniseries from HBO Latin America. The pay channel’s video unit just released the sequel in the U.S. as a four-DVD set.

“Epitafios: The End Now Has Two Faces” features the few surviving main characters from the original “Epitatios” (2004). That second face belongs to another inventive but insane serial killer with a love of turning slaughter into art. This time the medium is photography.

“Epitafios Season 2” loses the shock of the nuevo, of course, but in several ways improves upon its predecessor. Subplots are stronger and the pace quickens as the telenovela dramatics rarely interfere with the creepshow.

For El Norte viewers with savory tastes and strong stomachs to match, “Epitafios” is a seriously cool find.

Part of the show’s voodoo is its deep reserve of ways to creep out viewers. There’s usually one featured murder per episode, with plenty of collateral damage. The bodies pile up in a darkly beautiful Buenos Aires, rendered this time by cinematographers Guillermo Zappino and Miguel Abal.

Unfortunately, the second season’s DVD box set doesn’t show the care given to HBO’s domestic videos. Images are generally OK, but a bit wiggly and unstable in spots. The outer box portrays the new series, but the inner packaging and discs inexplicably show only images from season 1. (Stranger still, the Gracenote IDs showed up as “Deadwood” and then “McLeod’s Daughters.”) The Dolby Digital audio sounds fine and dialog is clear. The English subtitles take a few liberties, especially when the four-letter word “puta” is flying around.

Returning are stars Julio Chávez (as a haunted police detective Renzo Márquez) and Cecilia Roth (as a homicide profiler with a taste for Russian roulette). Of the two, the new serial killer (Leonardo Sbaraglia) fears the lady the most. (Roth is best known here for her starring role in Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother.”)

The new villain and key supporting players are terrific, especially a mysterious psychic (pictured, right) and the new chief of detectives. Then again, fans have learned not to get too attached to anyone who inhabits the show: “Epitafios” specializes in making its audience care about characters, and then ripping them away.

A few quibbles: Good as it is, the two “Epitafios” series aren’t consistently up to first-rate horror/thriller standards — the writing goes brain-dead here and there; the body count soars so high it becomes almost comical.

But where the first series’ momentum sagged in the middle, as the filmmakers struggled with the task of making what is essentially a 13-hour horror film, “Epitafios 2” rarely drags. The cliffhangers are maddeningly effective.

“Epitafios 2” is surprisingly kind to first-time viewers; there’s little dependence on prelude. But to go straight to the sequel would be a crime, especially when it comes to understanding the series’ major themes and the climax. Once again, the series remains true to its grim aesthetic to the final stop.

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original epitafios series killer and victimSeason 1 recap: “Epitafios” means epitaphs, which are the calling cards of the first season’s brilliant young psychopath, Bruno. He’s an evildoer pulled from the same Jungian well as Hannibal Lecter — only meaner and better looking. His obsessions include torture as an art form and Bizet’s “Carmen.” He’s kind to corpses and his pet rat.

Bruno (Antonio Birabent) fell into madness after a group of his high school classmates were burned alive in a hostage situation. Botching the negotiations to free the doomed kids were the weary police detective Renzo Márquez and a sexy psychiatrist (Paola Krum), who later became lovers.

Five years on, Bruno initiates his Rube Goldberg-esque scheme to kill off everyone connected with the massacre, in ways appropriate to what he sees as their crimes. (As in, the school treasurer who infuriated the hostage-taker is force-fed coins until she chokes to death.) The killer’s list is long enough to stretch 13 hours. Final targets: the cop and shrink.

“All those potential victims may also be potential murderers,” writer Walter Slavich says in the DVD featurette. “That’s the subject.” Or, as a retired cop puts it: “One way or another, everyone’s guilty of something.”

HBO’s five-disc "Epitafios: The Complete First Season"icon was released in 2006 and remains available at bargain prices. It comes guaranteed as addictive, creepy as hell and intellectually challenging.

The original “Epitafios” found something of a U.S. audience over the years — primarily thanks to HBO Signature airings and the HBO DVD box set — but remained a cult item at best. That situation improved in 2009 as as HBO2 (and HBO Latino) premiered the new “Epifitos” episodes. (The series were co-produced in Argentina by HBO Latin America.)

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