Over the past two decades, Guillermo del Toro has more than proven himself as a master of his craft. I’ve long been an outspoken fan of his and have made it a mission to introduce as many people as possible to his work. And while most know him for his action blockbusters, I wanted to shine a light on his earlier works as well.
It was 1993 when a then unknown Mexican filmmaker burst onto the scene with a low budget and most unusual take on the vampire mythos. Cronos enjoyed quite a lot of buzz at Cannes and won several critics’ choice awards but had a minimal release in the States. Even now, while many recognize del Toro’s name, it seems that few are familiar with his feature debut.
Cronos is a film that defies convention and expectations. Gone are the typical trappings of vampires. There are no castles or Victorian houses, no mysterious gentlemen in fancy evening wear or nubile ladies in revealing nightgowns. Rather, del Toro indulges in his uniquely distinctive aesthetics.
At the heart of the story is a mystical object created by an ancient alchemist, a golden scarab that houses delicate clockwork and a strange insect. When the device is activated and attached to a living person, the transformation into an immortal—and bloodthirsty—creature of the night begins…
Simple antiques dealer Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) unwittingly becomes the owner of this device when he buys the angel statue it has been hidden in. By accident, he activates the Cronos device, becoming its new host. But despite a few unpleasant side effects, most notably an addictive compulsion to keep using the Cronos and a newfound taste for blood, Jesús is pleased. He begins to feel healthier, younger than he has in years, and vigor for his life and his family is rekindled.
But a very rich and very sick man has been hunting for the Cronos, sending his savage and unbalanced nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) to recover the device.
When trashing Jesus’s shop doesn’t do the trick, Angel resorts to a more direct form of intimidation. Soon, Jesús finds himself becoming more of a monster than a man and makes some deadly choices in order to protect his wife and young granddaughter.
As a first film, Cronos is very impressive. The story can be slow at times and stripped down to the bones, but the powerful acting is what holds it all together. Luppi, who has become a mainstay in del Toro’s roster of actors, plays Jesús as an inherently kind man driven to violent extremes. His granddaughter Aurora is his whole world. Their interactions are truly moving, aided in no small part by the masterful directing of del Toro and the fine acting by Luppi and child actress Tamara Shanath.
Ron Perlman has made a name for himself as a character actor, playing brooding antiheroes and villains in equal measure. His unusual features, imposing figure, and booming voice make him a sure choice for horror—and his turn in this as the sociopathic Angel is properly unsettling. Jesus’s transformation may be frightening, but the true horror in Cronos is delivered by Perlman’s sadistic Angel. As in all of del Toro’s films, there’s great commentary in this: even when literal monsters exist, there are times when the humans are the most monstrous.
When I first watched Cronos with a friend, we both went in with preconceived notions. I had already seen most of del Toro’s later works and my friend was expecting a classic vampire story. By the end credits we both had wildly differing opinions.
He was disappointed and denounced it as dull; I knew I needed to watch it again to properly appreciate its layers. While del Toro’s English language outings have been heavy on the action and visual effects, his Spanish language films are much more emotional and visceral. These films are about the human element rather than the supernatural magic.
Thus, Cronos is more a drama about family and loss than an outright monster flick. Jesús struggles to connect with his granddaughter, who has only recently been orphaned. It’s clear that he’s still grieving the loss of her parents, too, and is having a hard time reconciling his new responsibilities and old life.
The Cronos device comes to represent a chance for him to have the energy he needs to properly raise Aurora, a way for him to always be there for her. But as with all fairy tales, immortality comes with a price. What Jesús must decide is whether that is a price he can pay or not.
Del Toro knows the macabre and surreal. Even in this, his first film, it’s on proud display. I wager that I’d be able to pick out a del Toro film out of a hundred, so distinctive is his style. But his films aren’t just dark eye-candy. He never relies purely on visual horror. As with all good storytellers, he understands the human heart and the power of emotion. He knows when to show and when to simply imply, leaving enough for the audience to fill in the blanks.
There are many layers in Cronos, which makes the conclusion all the more satisfying. This is no clear-cut and easy fight between good and evil; there is no climactic, righteous triumph with the hero striding off into the sunset draped in glory. This is a story that aches with loss and heartache, and in this first film, del Toro makes it clear: he will never pull his punches.
Cronos is definitely a thinker’s horror film. Anyone expecting gratuitous gore, cheap thrills, or predictable violence will be sorely disappointed. And this is not a film one can put on for a light afternoon’s viewing, or have running in the background while attention is divided. It demands focus and a dark evening, when every moment can be properly felt and appreciated.
If all you know of del Toro is Blade II and Hellboy, I highly recommend giving this a shot. I can guarantee that you’ll appreciate this director in a whole new light.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.