I’ve been a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro since the first film of his that I saw, which was either The Devil’s Backbone from 2001, or Pan’s Labyrinth from 2006. There’s just something about his particular vision of the beautiful grotesque, his sense of wonder that comes across in his stories even when they’re very tragic, and his embrace of the monster or outsider, that really resonates with me, and I’ve absolutely enjoyed every single movie of his that I’ve seen, even the bigger-budget “studio” ones (though I obviously prefer his more personal films).
Shortly after I saw the two films mentioned above, I discovered del Toro’s first feature film, Cronos, which came out in 1993 and was made when he was just 29 years old. At the time I first heard of it, probably in 2007 or so, not a lot of people talked about it, though I was able to buy a 10th-anniversary DVD release of it online, since it wasn’t available to rent in my area (back when video rental stores were still a thing). It’s a fascinating movie to watch, because it demonstrates very clearly that even at a relatively young age, all of the attributes that make del Toro one of the most esteemed filmmakers in the world were already firmly in place.
Cronos is essentially a vampire story, though because it’s del Toro, he puts a unique spin on the classic monster, and adds in his trademark melancholy, gothic elegance, heart, and dark humor. In a bit of a prologue at the beginning of the movie, we learn that an alchemist named Fulcanelli (actually based on a real guy), who was living in Mexico in the 16th century, invented something called a Cronos Device: a small, golden, clockwork-style mechanism that looks something like a scarab and can bestow everlasting life through a method we don’t learn until later on. The prologue then goes on to show that the alchemist himself actually lived until 1937, when an earthquake toppled the building he was living in and caused a stray wooden beam to fall and pierce his heart. Though his body was found in the wreckage by authorities, the fact that the building also housed several large basins filled with blood was never disclosed to the public.
We then jump ahead to December 1996 (interestingly, the film is set three years after it was actually made, though I’m not exactly sure why). An old man named Jesús Gris (played by Argentinian actor Federico Luppi, who was also in Pan’s Labyrinth) runs an antique shop in Mexico City, and dotes on his granddaughter Aurora. Aurora lives with Jesús and his wife Mercedes after her parents were killed prior to the events of the film.
In a recent shipment, Jesús has received an archangel statue, though he has yet to unwrap it. A sketchy young man wanders into the shop and seems really interested in it, pulling aside the paper from the face, so after Shifty McRobberpants leaves the store, Jesús decides to look at it more closely. One of the angel’s eyes is broken, and in a scene that absolutely made my skin crawl, a bunch of roaches come scuttling out of the hole, demonstrating that the statue is hollow. Prying up the base, Jesús and Aurora discover the Cronos Device, though of course they don’t know what it is.
As an amused Jesús tinkers around with it, little legs with spikes on the ends shoot out the sides, and the thing clamps painfully onto his hand, drawing a substantial amount of blood. Though of course he can’t see this, a shot of the inside of the device shows the audience that there is actually a living insect inside, intertwined with all the clockwork, and it appears to be drinking the blood.
Subsequently, Jesús starts feeling a little strange. He actually begins to look and feel younger and more vigorous, though he’s also developed a hankering for something he can’t quite put his finger on. At last, he figures out that it’s the device that he wants, and like an addict, he starts sneaking around in the middle of the night, clamping it onto himself and letting it do its thing. He also begins to develop an insatiable desire to drink blood, even licking some off a bathroom floor at a New Year’s Eve party after another guy gets a nosebleed.
His granddaughter Aurora, who only utters one word throughout the entire film, is worried about what’s happening to him, and as it turns out, the Cronos Device transforming her beloved grandfather into a vampire isn’t the only cause for concern. See, there’s this wealthy businessman named Dieter de la Guardia (played by Claudio Brook, who was also in 1975’s The Devil’s Rain and the 1989 Bond flick Licence To Kill, among many other things), who is dying from some wasting disease. He is actually in possession of a book that the alchemist Fulcanelli wrote in which he described the Cronos Device, and Dieter has spent the last few years scouring the globe to find it so he can live forever. His bruiser of a nephew Angel (played by frequent del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman) knows that it was hidden inside an archangel statue, and he purchases the statue from Jesús’s shop, not knowing that Jesús has already removed the device. But when he does find out, Angel pretty much goes on a rampage, trying to get the mechanism to his uncle through any means necessary, though Angel himself is in a bit of a pickle with the whole situation: he’s waiting for his uncle to croak so he can finally get his inheritance, but if he actually succeeds in giving his uncle the device, he won’t actually get any inheritance because his uncle won’t die.
Eventually, Angel “kills” Jesús by pushing his car off a cliff, though because Jesús’s heart wasn’t pierced, he actually revives in the undertaker’s before his body is cremated (in one of the movie’s most blackly comic scenes; incidentally, the funeral director and his assistant from this movie actually reprise these same roles in 2010’s We Are What We Are, directed by Jorge Michel Grau). Now that Jesús is dead, his body begins to deteriorate, but Aurora loves her grandfather just the same, and helps him to defeat Dieter and Angel. The film ends a bit ambiguously, as Jesús is not sure if destroying the device will return him to normal, or whether he will die for real once the mechanism is no longer operating.
Though Cronos is not quite as assured or polished as del Toro’s later films, it’s still an extraordinary debut, a dark fantasy with quite a bit of gore, an original take on the vampire mythos, and a strong emotional core at its center about unconditional love and the poisonous lure of immortality. Though Jesús fell victim to the Cronos Device accidentally, he becomes something of a slave to it, though he is never less than sympathetic, even as he struggles with his desire to drink the blood of his adored granddaughter Aurora. It’s a beautiful and sad tale about addiction, about the lengths some people will go to in order to obtain more time than they’re due, and the way that love can (sometimes) overcome evil. If you’ve enjoyed Guillermo del Toro’s other films but haven’t got around to this one yet, I would definitely recommend it, as it’s an outstanding horror film examining many of del Toro’s favorite themes and visual touchstones.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.