Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 10, 2017
Guillermo del Toro was still in his twenties when he wrote and directed Cronos (1993), a horror movie, yes, but also a movie about time and age and what it means to live forever. One might think 29 too young an age to tackle such subjects but when it comes to horror, in particular, and moviemaking, in general, del Toro could easily be the subject of Count Dracula’s famous response to Van Helsing, “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man.” Since then, del Toro’s reputation has grown and his movies have become blockbusters at the box office but his first one out might still be my favorite.
PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD - Cronos begins by relating the story of an alchemist in the 16th century who longs to find the key to eternal life. He builds a small mechanical device, inside of which lives a large unidentified bug, that when used properly, grants the received the gift of eternal life (Wisely, del Toro never attempts an explanation as to how this works). The alchemist uses the device and hundreds of years later, in 1937, a building collapses revealing the lair of the alchemist underneath, skin white, cracked, and unearthly in appearance. The collapsed rubble has pierced his heart and, finally, he lays dying. The narrator then tells us that the authorities never revealed what they found in his lair but the viewer gets to see: A poor soul, strung upside down, being bled for the alchemist’s addiction, human blood. We then go to the present, or the present of the movie, 1993.
In our contemporary story, an old antiques dealer, Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), calls a mysterious buyer every time an angel statue winds up in his shop. The buyer, Angel (Ron Perlman), works for his uncle, Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook), who collects the statues and has them all sealed in plastic bags hanging in his sterilized room at the top of one of his factories. He is clearly dying and seeking out the statues not for their beauty but for what he believes they hold, the secret to everlasting life. Years before, he came upon a diary, a guidebook of sorts, taken from the ruins of that building collapse, and in it found the secrets of the device, the Cronos device. His son is buying every archangel statue they can find from the 16th century because Dieter knows that’s where the device is hidden.
Gris finds the device before Angel arrives, however, and decides to keep it for himself, thinking de la Guardia will only be interested in the statue. He and his granddaughter play around with it and suddenly, sharp arms extend out from it, latch onto his hand, and a needle from inside pierces his skin. He pulls it off as fast as he can but later cannot stop itching it. He surmises he pulled it off before it could finish so he puts the device back on his hand and lets the solution from the insect within fully penetrate his hand. The next day, he feels great, shaves his mustache, and tells his wife he feels younger. When he visits de la Guardia, it doesn’t take de la Guardia long to figure out Gris has found and used the device. He demands to have it but Gris refuses and leaves.
When de la Guardia sends Angel to get Gris that evening, he finds him on the floor of a bathroom at a society function lapping up the blood of a man who cut his hand. Gris is now completely drawn to human blood and, as it so happens, averse to sunlight. He is now becoming more vampire than man, though not the kind that grows fangs and turns into a bat. Angel beats Gris to death, puts him in his car and plows him off a cliff, only to have Gris emerge later, after his funeral, fully alive, or at least undead. – END PLOT SPOILERS
What is striking about Cronos the first time you see it is how utterly unconcerned the movie is with scaring you. This is not a horror film for people who like jump scares or being frightened by monsters. In fact, Jesus Gris is, by far, the most sympathetic character in the film. Angel, the brutal nephew played expertly by Ron Perlman, is easily the scariest. He’s a mindless thug who lets violence do all of his talking. Gris is a gentle man, who cannot bear the burden of the new life he has been given.
No, Cronos is a horror film about the horror of loneliness. The horror of finding out that everything you loved will disappear and everyone you cherish will die long before you ever depart this world. Gris is repulsed by his new appearance (since being “killed” by Angel and forced off the cliff, his skin has rotted and must be pulled off) but cannot bring himself to pierce his own heart, the only thing that will truly kill him. He also cannot bear to be without his wife and granddaughter and wants to be with them, even if he is horrifying in appearance and needs to feed on human blood.
Federico Luppi gives such an affecting performance as Jesus Gris that the heartbreak of his existence makes the audience wish for him to die, for his own sake. Right from the start, as he moves around his shop while his wife teaches tango upstairs, he seems a man content to slide into his twilight years with little resistance. He loves his wife and is happy to have her and his granddaughter in his life. He wants nothing more. When his skin is pierced with the Cronos device, he takes to it like a junkie, affixing it to his hand, and then his chest, nightly, for another fix of that life preserving venom. But he doesn’t want it, it’s just an addiction. It’s just something that got a hold of him and now he can’t break its grip.
Cronos is a film that follows in the centuries old tradition of using fantastical stories, whether in a horror or science fiction setting, to comment on life experiences that everyone can understand. This is nothing new and yet I have seen repeatedly over the past few years, and in one article in particular on another site, that horror is getting “deep” and is “so much better” than it used to be when it was all just about stabbing people to death. As if the Friday the 13th movies were all horror ever was before 2010. Some of the greatest social commentaries ever made have been sci-fi and horror and Cronos is no different.
What does set Cronos apart is its style and del Toro’s immediate confidence behind the camera. Right from the beginning, del Toro has never been afraid to go big. Sometimes this works against him for me (I felt Crimson Peak was more a CGI/Wall of Sound extravaganza than a story and would have appreciated a subtler touch) but here he pulls it back when he needs to. The short scenes of him being put away for the night in a chest by his granddaughter, who is keeping his undeadness a secret, are quiet and touching. Speaking of which, you can also see his early experimentation with using a child through which to see the horrors unfolding. Years later, he would have his greatest success with Pan’s Labyrinth, and Tamara Shanath in Cronos seems like a trial run for Ivana Baquero’s character in that movie.
Cronos is the first film in a very big career, one that started a wonderful working relationship with Ron Perlman and Federico Luppi, both, as I’ve already said, simply terrific here. And even with a career that has given us some great works and some damned entertaining movies, I still hold Cronos dear as my favorite del Toro film. He took the story of a mad alchemist creating a device that turns you into a vampire and made an affecting tale of loneliness and, in the end, redemption. I highly recommend it.
To view Cronos click here.
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