Dir: Guillermo del Toro


Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

Although Guillermo del Toro has moved on to bigger budgets and grander stories, all of the trappings and obsessions that run through the director’s best films are all there on display in his 1993 debut Cronos. Though little seen in comparison to his breakthrough Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, recently released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, is imbued with the stuff of the darkest fairytales, a haunting little film that would augur greater successes such as Pan’s and del Toro’s 2001 masterpiece The Devil’s Backbone.

Despite forays into Hollywood horror with Mimic, Blade II and the Hellboy movies, Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth serve as a trilogy demonstrating what really makes the Mexican filmmaker tick as a director. Besides the fact that all three feature Argentine actor Federico Luppi, each is chock-full of things that go bump in the night, coming of age tales for their young protagonists, supernatural bildungsroman of a sort. Although the child star in Cronos has a much more passive role than the other two movies in this loose trilogy, you can see the foundation here for del Toro’s future, greater works.

Cronos begins like most fairytales, with a prologue that sets the stage. Here, we learn of a 14th century alchemist who creates a monstrous machine, the Cronos Device, that allows him to live forever. But when the alchemist is killed centuries later in an earthquake, pierced through the heart by building detritus, the Cronos Device is lost until a kindly antiques dealer Jesús Gris (Luppi) and his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) discover the device trapped inside of an archangel statue in his store. After fooling with the device, it attaches itself to Jesús’ skin, making him immortal. Soon, the old man develops a taste for blood. Pierced through the heart. Life immortal. A thirst for blood. You get the picture.

However, Cronos is anything but a traditional vampire film. Out to get the Cronos Device is De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), a ruthless businessman who is rotting away from cancer and his thuggish nephew Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman) who wants nothing more than some peace and a nose job. De la Guardia has learned about the Cronos Device in an ancient tome and desires to wield its power.

Del Toro frames the film through the eyes of Aurora who mutely watches her grandfather turn into a rotting bloodsucker. Like Backbone and Pan’s, waves of both sadness and perverse humor run through Cronos. Perlman is menacing and funny as the heavy that is split between loyalty and hatred for his uncle. Like future Del Toro child protagonists, Aurora is orphaned, a wounded bird that is able to see the supernatural undercurrents welling around her.

Cronos is not a perfect film. It takes too long get going and ends somewhat abruptly, but for a horror film, it is filled with both pathos and fascinating characters that somehow are routinely left out of most fright flicks. A light confection, Cronos is the sign of a master director warming up and an interesting take on vampire movies. Let’s hope Criterion gives The Devil’s Backbone the same treatment.

by David Harris

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