Cronos (1993, Guillermo del Toro)
Cronos is an early film from Guillermo del Toro which not many people mention when they are called upon to think of some of the director’s work. It lacks the polish and shine that his later efforts would be blessed with, but arguably has just as much heart and intelligence as those subsequent films, maybe even more so. Watching Cronos, it was quite clear to me that del Toro was absolutely giddy at the prospect of regurgitating all the morbid and off kilter ideas jumbled up in his mind. Film is Del Toro’s venue to not only create, but to liberate. More specifically, to liberate everything his unique imagination has to offer. Rather than witness the resulting movie become a discombobulated mess, the writer and director respects the venue of cinema enough to delivers something comprehensible, touching and out of this world all at once.
We are still at the beginning of the Guillermo del Toro marathon, and I have yet to see all the man’s work, but of those I have seen, it seems remarkable just how each of his movies tackle very specific themes, with each theme being given the del Toro radical treatment through, a process a by which the director keeps said themes rooted in an emotional and intellectual truth the viewer can relate. The fantastical lens through which del Toro filters his themes enable him to play with them in ways that are sometimes fun, other times dark, as is the case with this film. It opens with some brief back story in which a narrator explains how, centuries go, an occultist created an unbelievable machine that could prolong life. It was the Cronos device, a tiny little thing no greater than the size of a watch, shaped like a small scarab. Happenstance sees that the Cronos lands in the antiques shop of a kind elderly man named Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi). Unbeknownst to him or Aurora, the granddaughter he looks after, the Cronos is a much sought after item, its latest hunter being the rich, but fatally ill and tightly secluded De la Guardia (Claudio Brooks), who has sent his nephew, the narcissistic Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman) to retrieve it.
Before Angel can land his grubby hands on the coveted article, it is discovered by Jesus in his shop. The initial experience, once the metallic scarab spreads its tiny legs, injects a stinger into Jesus’ hand and begins to suck his blood, is unorthodox and shocking. However, rather than do away with the device, the antiques dealer opts to keep it for himself and, late one night, uses it again, this time finding the experience quite soothing, even empowering. From the moment Jesus shows signs of affinity for drinking blood, the audience understands just how the Cronos prolongs life: it turns its victims into vampires. Time plays a significant role in the themes of this film. The Cronos has been sought after for centuries, it prolongs life, the villain who desires it, old and sickly, is running out of time, and the person who benefits from it, Jesus Gris, quickly realizes it gives him too much time (to be a hideous vampire). For some it is a matter of a race against time. de la Guardia’s determination to snatch the Cronos belies his poor health. He is just as ferocious as his nephew Angel, if not more so in some fashion. Death is fast approaching, meaning that the laws of nature dictate that he will no longer have any time on this earth. Not knowing what lies beyond our dimension, he naturally decides to cheat fate. What he doesn’t seem to appreciate is the sort of creature he would become were he to actually make use of the Cronos.
Jesus has used the hellish object and is not enamoured with the results. Like de la Guardia, Jesus is elderly, maybe more so than his counterpart, but his given a extension by the Cronos. Of course, the extension does come without a price. Soon, our fallen hero acquires the taste for blood and his skin begins to rot. To spend the rest of eternity in this state is as far from a blessing as can be. That’s too much time. del Toro puts a clever spin on the vampire mythos in how, instead of creating young, strong creature of the night, he transforms the elderly. In essence, Jesus is a pretty ineffectual vampire. Yes, he is immortal and can survive almost anything now, but physically he remains a weak old man. This choices some much needed fresh air into the vampire genre, which has seen more than its faire share of entries that lacked any sort of punch. It also provides engaging standoffs between two opposing forces, Jesus and de la Guardia, who are elderly, which is something else one does not encounter very often in horror stories. The director enjoys stories which have rich characters, stories and characters that feel weighty thanks in part to both a well defined history and understandable emotional cores. The world del Toro, much like the ones he would go on to build for future projects, feels fully realized, all the while fully totally contained in the world of this dark fable, which might be the best word to describe the type of story which unfolds before our eyes. If fables exist to speak about truths, the truth about Cronos is the beauty of human life. Jesus, prior to becoming a nosferatu, was a lively and kind man, who loved both his wife and granddaughter. His passage as a monster is the ultimate test. Reduced to sipping droplets of blood of the counters in bathroom stalls and peeling off rotting skin, Jesus discovers that cheating life is not worth it. The beacon of light throughout the film may very well be Aurora, who sees past the ugly exterior and recognizes her dear grandfather. Her love, that of a child, is too strong to be broken by Jesus’ unfortunate new skin. All this eventually leads the protagonist to accept that being a vampire is not for him, and that as a normal, mortal human being, he is a much better man.
The scenes between Jesus and Aurora, both before and after the hideous transformation, are blessed with great heart. The little girl, Tamara Shanath, does not speak a word but conveys the perfect childlike innocence and unwavering friendship. Federico Luppi, an actor I was unaware even existed prior to watching Cronos, gives an unforgettable performance as the man who realizes the error of his ways all too late. The actor excels at demonstrating the inner goodness of the character. Like most people, he is fallible, privy to greed, but ultimately good natured, decent and even capable of recognizing his mistakes. To be perfectly honest, he gives one of the best performances this movie fan has had the pleasure of watching in some time. Cronos also announces the first of many collaborations between the director and Ron Perlman, whom we shall see again later in this marathon. His performance is on an entirely different level. Loud, brash, delightfully aggravating, Perlman relishes every moment he his given to explode on screen. He slaves away for his nefarious uncle in the hopes that one day he will fully take over the business (de la Guardia owns a plant of some sort), but Angel is no less bitter and dangerous than the old man. It is a pretty ridiculous performance, one that at times feels a bit too forced, maybe a bit too loud, but in the end proves to be enjoyable nonetheless.
Guillermo del Toro would go on to make bigger, more aesthetically complex films. Cronos however deserves mention for its ability to develop characters the viewers want to see. The fantastical elements are put to wonderful use in studying human behaviour, both its strengths and flaws. Most importantly, the film is a crucial early sign that the writer director does not merely relish in makeup and monster effects, but enjoys telling stories that do indeed have a beating heart at their center.