Guillermo del Toro, writer/dir.

January 01, 1970

(The Criterion
Collection, approx. 94 minutes)

 

http://www.criterion.com/films/27534-cronos

 

BY ZACHARY HERRMANN

 

THE MOVIE

 

The vampire as a
tragic figure in film and literature is a bit played out, and some might argue,
almost meaningless in a post-Twilight and True Blood world. But before
these two franchises divided Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark and conquered, a young Mexican filmmaker was doing
something far more interesting with the classic vampire myth.

 

Guillermo del
Toro’s Cronos, his debut feature from
1993, treats vampirism as neither sexy nor leather-clad cool.  Once bitten by the ancient Cronos device,
Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) transforms into a full-blown junkie more than what
we might traditionally think of as a vampire. 
He is simultaneously vitalized and degraded when he receives his fix,
forcing the audience into the role of the guilty voyeur.

 

Meshing del
Toro’s lapsed Catholic perspective with the writer/director’s love of
(subverting) Hollywood tropes, Cronos is a small wonder, an incredibly
polished and heartfelt entertainment capable of empathy well beyond del Toro’s
years.

 

Since his
somewhat humbler beginnings, the Mexican auteur has gone on to bigger things,
both as a Spanish and English-language director. His ability to inject B-movie
visions into the art-house has led to a body of work of unparalleled
imagination (although how far this dexterity extends beyond the visual realm
has been subject to well-reasoned debate elsewhere).

 

Cronos, like any auspicious first film, perfectly lays out the
themes, concerns and overall tone of del Toro’s filmography to date.
“Solidarity is the only possibility for human redemption”, del Toro says on the
commentary (recorded in 2002), so inversely, loneliness and isolation seals Jesus’
destruction.

 

Luppi’s Jesus,
who is not so subtly “reborn” under the green and red glow of Christmas lights,
suffers from a stagnant marriage and a quiet fear of death. His antique shop
encapsulates this melancholic dustiness, until he and his practically mute
daughter, Aurora, come across a golden scarab hidden in a statuette of an
angel.

 

The device,
designed by a fated alchemist during the Spanish Inquisition, penetrates Jesus’
hand, granting him vitality, cursing him to addiction. In the film’s strongest
sequence, Jesus lets the device penetrate him again, as he writhes, slipping
down the stairs, in simultaneous pain and pleasure. Quite self-consciously, del
Toro plays on the Cronenbergian paradox: fear of penetration dominated by the
subconscious desire for it.

 

With a few
ambiguous references to the fate of Aurora’s parents,
Cronos‘ greatest tragedy is Aurora’s bearing witness
to her grandfather’s heartbreaking transformation to a junk-sick vampire. She
watches him shoot up, so to speak, and still, Aurora silently welcomes her grandfather,
going beyond what is typically required of nuclear family and offering what del
Toro coins an “incestuous” sacrifice.

 

More so than del
Toro’s later films, Cronos holds on
to its influences and wears them proudly, allowing for great bits of color to
seep into the director’s already-developed amber-and-red palette. The duo of
del Toro and longtime cinematographer Guillermo Navarro was ripe from the
beginning – their shared eye for composition and color is painterly and
vibrant, joyously rejecting that now-solidified Hollywood
cliché that serious movies must be de-saturated rather than bright and colorful
in the Powell and Pressburger sense.

 

On a structural
level, del Toro crafts his “villains”, Angel de la Guardia (Ron Pearlman) and
his ailing tycoon father (Claudio Brook), as cartoony reflections to his sadly
suffering protagonist, though they desire many of the same things, essentially.
Brook and (especially) Perlman know how to carry just the right amount of camp,
though their suffering is no more or less than Jesus’.

 

 In the end, as with del Toro’s future efforts The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s the aching loss of
life that echoes greatest. The film’s final image cuts both ways – as a tearful
reunion of family and a moment of personal destruction.  

 

SPECIAL FEATURES:

 

Regarding the
image quality, the Blu-ray transfer beautifully transposes the deep, cold blues
and more predominant earth tones that del Toro is so fond of. The image has a
very filmic grain to it, revealing what must have been one of the
better-looking films shot in the ‘90s.

 

As far as a
one-disc release goes, Criterion’s Cronos release sports a great, if not exactly copious, selection of extras. The crown
jewel is the home video debut of del Toro’s practically unseen first short
film, Geometria, a clever gore fest
and professed homage to Argento and Fulci, punctuated with del Toro’s own
gallows humor.

 

More so than any
other director today, del Toro is an articulate appraiser of his own efforts.
His commentary track on Cronos and
interview/evaluation concerning Geometria negates any real need for a third party critic on the disc.

 

Welcome to Bleak House is a geek’s take on MTV Cribs, with del Toro providing a tour of his base of
operations. The house is decked out, wall to wall, with memorabilia and props
culled from all across cinema and literature (Phantom of the Paradise busts! First edition The Wizard of Oz books!).  If
nothing else, the wide variety of artifacts serves to underscore just how
disparate del Toro’s inspirations are. He makes no hierarchy between high and
low culture, and so his films inhabit both realms simultaneously, to great
success.

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