Cronos directed by Guillermo del Toro
Very recently, this viewer watched, for the first time, the 1958 Mexican film The Vampire’s Coffin, in which the Count Lavud – a bloodsucker very much in the traditional, uh, vein – returns to continue his nocturnal depredations. And just last night, for the first time also, I watched another Mexican film dealing with a man who has a decided thirst for blood, Guillermo del Toro’s first film as a director, 1993’s Cronos. This latter picture, however, coming 35 years after the other, is anything BUT a traditional vampire tale, and reveals del Toro to be a masterful filmmaker, and a consummate craftsman. Both written and directed by del Toro, Cronos must be added to the list of such Great First Horror Films By A Novice Director as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage; it may not be as seminal a film as any of those earlier three, but it yet bursts with the same manifest imaginative glee and sheer joy of filmmaking; the work of a first-time director anxious to show the world what he is capable of, and succeeding wildly.
Unlike the American sci-fi film Kronos (1957), which told of an energy-draining alien contraption, Cronos tells of a gizmo of a very different nature. In the picture’s ubercreepy and fascinating intro, the viewer learns that the Cronos device was constructed by a Spanish alchemist, Uberto Fulcanelli, in 1536; a golden, scarab-shaped construction containing moving gears and a living insect, the device can sprout spiderlike appendages and insert a stinger into its owner, conferring the gift of eternal life. Flash forward 450 years or so, and we meet a kindly, aging antique-store owner, Jesus Gris (Gray Jesus, in other words, and played by Argentinean actor Federico Luppi, who would go on to appear in the del Toro films The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth), who lives with his wife Mercedes (Margarita Isabel) and his strange little granddaughter, Aurora (the remarkable child actress Tamara Shanath). Jesus’ antique shop is very much an upscale one – not at all like the Temptations Ltd. emporium that Peter Cushing presides over in 1973’s From Beyond the Grave, to say the least – and, to be succinct, he one day discovers the ancient Cronos device hidden in the base of an archangel statue. Jesus is very quickly affected by the gizmo and is soon afflicted with a taste for blood. Meanwhile, his already tough predicament worsens when thuggish goon Angel (Ron Perlman, who himself would go on to appear in the del Toro films Blade 2, Hellboy and its sequel), emissary and nephew of dying millionaire De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), starts to get decidedly violent in his own search for the Cronos device…
Strangely enough, the film that Cronos most brought to mind, as I watched it, was none other than the 1973 American film Ganja and Hess. In both pictures, a decent man is pierced by an ancient artifact (the dagger of Myrthia, in the earlier film) and becomes a vampire of sorts, although the “V word” is never mentioned in either film; in both films, our transformed man (Night of the Living Dead‘s Duane Jones, in the earlier picture) is shown daintily and disgustingly lapping up blood off of a floor! But that is pretty much where the similarity ends, and while Ganja and Hess is painfully slow moving and even managed the near-impossible task of putting me to sleep (the only film to ever accomplish this!), Cronos is at once compact, fast moving, suspenseful, colorful and exciting. It is also filled with all sorts of imaginative and oddball touches, such as Angel’s nose fetish, a side trip to a very strange mortician’s workshop, and those jars of (his very own) preserved organs that De la Guardia keeps on display. And speaking of oddball, the Aurora character is a very strange one indeed, a nearly mute little girl (I believe she speaks but a single word during the course of the entire film) whose unwavering love of and support for her grandfather – despite the horrible transformations he undergoes – are very much the sweet soul of this ultimately touching film. We care not a whit for the two central characters of Ganja and Hess, but get very much emotionally invested in the welfare of both Jesus and Aurora. In all, this is a wonderfully self-assured debut for a tyro filmmaker; as del Toro himself puts it, with typical humor and self-deprecation, in one of this DVD’s many interview extras, it was “made with absolute, mad, fat-man passion and put out to the world with sincerity and brutal honesty.” Happily, that passion is clearly evident throughout this marvelous film.
One final word concerning this DVD itself. It is a Criterion DVD, and I suppose that alone should testify as to its quality and generous content. Extras include interviews with del Toro, Perlman, Luppi and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (who, incidentally, does a wonderful job here, and who would go on to win an Oscar for his work on Pan’s Labyrinth), as well as del Toro’s first short film, 1987’s Geometria, AND a tour of del Toro’s office/house/museum, Bleak House. This abode contains hundreds and hundreds of rare books, film collectibles and sundry horror/fantasy pieces, and with any justice will one day be open to the public via paid admission. A most impressive collection, from a man whose love for film seems virtually boundless…
Does Ron Perlman’s character go around with nose-cards, because he’s considering surgery? Is this *that* movie?
YES…you got dat right!