Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Cronos (1993)

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Fedirico Luppi, Claudio Brook, Ron Perlman, Tamara Shanath
Running Time: 94 minutes

Guillermo Del Toro was bound to turn up here at some point. It was inevitable. The big Mexican is unquestionably my favorite director to come along in the past decade and a half and one of the few whose movies I make every effort to see in theaters when I can. I first crossed paths with him when I rented MIMIC from Springhill’s local mom and pop in a stint between semesters at Louisiana Tech – not a movie that floored me, but enough of it has stuck with that I think it’s overdue for a re-watch – but the real gateway drug was BLADE II, his bloody, crazed sequel to Marvel and New Line’s surprise hit. Its mix of Hong Kong action and ALIENS channeled through gothic horror was right up my alley but it was the intelligence, humor and enthusiasm that Del Toro showed on the DVD’s special features that completely won me over.  I wouldn’t call Del Toro and myself kindred spirits but there’s enough in his obsessions and sensibilities that parallels what I enjoy in movies and art in general that I can jokingly describe him as a director who makes Movies Just For Me. His films are celebration of the strange and fantastic, undercut with a sense of melancholy and genuine empathy for the imperfect, the broken and the monstrous, whether they're heroes or villains. In Del Toro's world, monsters are more often than not tragic victims, something that runs throughout his entire body of work and can be seen as recently as his lavish gothic horror CRIMSON PEAK. As I stated when discussing Paul Verhoeven, in an industry that relies too much on "safe bet" entertainment, there's something quite wonderful about sitting in the theater and experiencing a film by a director that clearly doesn't care one bit for whatever the mainstream dictates. So, you can imagine how happy I was when I got hooked into participating in the Criterion Blogathon and while perusing the selections saw that not one but two of his films were available: His Spanish Civil War set ghost story THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE and my choice, CRONOS, his wholly unique twist on vampire mythology. I went with CRONOS because I feel that it may be in danger of getting lost in the shadow of Del Toro's later, more visible output. CRONOS isn't a perfect film, too obviously the work of a young, inexperienced artist who was still working on how to best express himself, but much of what would become Del Toro's trademarks are very much in evidence here and that definitely makes this movie worth your time.

CRONOS's story is a simple one by design: In the year 1537, an alchemist completes his work on the titular Cronos device, a gnarly crossbreed of mechanical scarab and Faberge Egg which our narration informs us will grant everlasting life to anyone who uses it. The device was obviously a success because when we jump ahead almost four hundred years later, we find the alchemist is still alive…but not for long, as he has been grievously injured by debris in a collapsing building. His invention was never recovered, hidden away in the base of a wooden archangel statue. That statue eventually finds its way into the possession of Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), an elderly antique dealer who lives in Mexico with his wife and orphaned granddaughter (Tamara Shanath), who discovers the device while cleaning up a roach infestation. (An amusing touch, I thought. Resilient insects and all that.) While examining it, Jesus ends up activating the device, which sprouts several needle-like appendages that drive themselves into his flesh. The serious damage does to his hand will be just the beginning of Jesus’s problems. Come night time, his injuries won’t stop itching; he’s burning up with a fever and can’t seem to slake a powerful, sudden thirst. Most disturbingly, he can’t seem to take his eyes off of that piece of bloody meat in the refrigerator. Desperation for any kind of relief will drive him to use the device again and its here that we learn that the Cronos device houses an undying insect that lives off of the blood of its victim. In return, this creature injects them with a strange fluid of its own that restores their youth and vitality, ensuring that the creature has a healthy and grateful host to feed on for the foreseeable future. At first, Jesus enjoys his rediscovered passion and vigor but as he uses the device more and more, he's unsettled by the developing side effects; an aversion to sunlight, a weird substance oozing out of the wounds the machine inflicts on him, and those pesky cravings for blood. Those really don’t want to go away. 

Further danger comes from industrialist Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) and his thuggish nephew Angel (Ron Perlman). The Cronos device is de la Guardia's obsession, a possible escape from the grotesque half-life a terminal sickness has reduced him to. He can't leave the clean room that rests at the heart of his factory, can't consume anything but pills for nourishment and many of his internal organs have had to be removed. (He keeps those in a display case like some sort of Cronenbergian trophy set.) Dieter will do anything to get his hands on the device and while Angel doesn't understand his uncle's madness -- "All that man does is piss and shit and he wants to live longer?" -- he's willing to play along if it means he can get his hands on Dieter's business empire. The fight over the Cronos piece comes to a head at a New Year's Eve party, where Angel kidnaps Jesus and savagely beats him before shoving him over a cliff in a car. That would be the end of Jesus's story right there...except for the little detail that thanks to his repeated use of the Cronos device, Jesus can't die...

Del Toro describes himself as a filmmaker who nearly kills himself making the kinds of movies that others would dash off for a quick buck. CRONOS's creation was exactly that sort of uphill struggle for the director, who wrote the screenplay at twenty one but wouldn't film it for another seven years. To gain the necessary experience to direct feature films, Del Toro served as a regular director on HORA MARCADA, Mexico's equivalent to THE TWILIGHT ZONE. He had to found his own make-up and practical effects house specifically for the production of CRONOS due to the lack of any sort of special effects company in his home of Guadalajara. (Once the film was completed, the company was shut down.) Despite the film's budget being the highest for any Mexican film production -- Two million dollars -- money issues plagued the production. Del Toro had to resort to mortgaging his house and selling his van in order to make up for the lack of funds and barely had enough money to fly his wife and himself to the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. The struggling production and Del Toro's growing pains as a director transitioning from television to film is readily apparent in the final result. Del Toro's movies are noted for their elaborate spectacle, camera work and sets, with the man himself regularly regarded as one of the industry's best visual designers but we catch only glimpses of it here. At times, CRONOS feels more like an elaborate television production than anything. The characters as they stand are more prototypes for what would come later than they are their own, though the cast is capable enough to do the heavy lifting. (It's no surprise that Perlman and Luppi would make regular appearances in Del Toro's movies.) The attempts at humor, including a comical interlude with a mortician and Ron Perlman’s nose job obsession, are genuinely amusing but seem so at odds with the sense of melancholy and loss elsewhere that they almost feel like intrusions from another film. There's strong imagery and moments of greatness here -- an undead Jesus's return home to his granddaughter after his funeral is a standout sequence -- but they come in between scenes where its obvious that Del Toro is still stretching his wings.

It's those moments of greatness, intermittent though they are, that make CRONOS worth watching. Del Toro may have still needed to get a handle on his filmmaking craft, but even at this point in his career his considerable talent is on display and we can see the first explorations of themes and ideas that would be refined in subsequent films. The extraordinary forcing its way into ordinary lives, discovering beauty in ugliness, the re-examination and re-purposing of classical imagery -- religious or otherwise and the aforementioned monster as a tragic victim. CRONOS is a vampire movie but it's view of the vampire is definitely not a romantic one. There's no regal aristo in suit and cape here but a poverty row junkie suffering from a near animal need for their next fix. (An idea continued with BLADE II's Reapers.) Jesus is so agonized by his newly developed craving that he'll lick up drops of blood from a bathroom floor. He becomes even more pitiful after his "death," his flesh rotting and peeling away and dressed in the tattered remains of his funeral clothing. His vampire's cloak is an old blanket he retrieves from the garbage and his coffin is his granddaughter's toy box. Even the Cronos device is revealed to be nothing more than a cage for a tick-like parasite. In an interview about the movie, Del Toro states "Life is beautiful because it has a beginning and an end." To attempt to go beyond this limit is to commit a crime against nature itself, something CRONOS illustrates not only with the fate of the alchemist and Jesus's deteriorating condition, but in the pathetic state de la Guardia's attempts to staving off his impending demise has left him in. Indeed, it's only when Jesus finally rejects the Cronos device and its costly immortality that he's allowed to regain his dignity. 

It's his love for his granddaughter Aurora that gives him the strength to destroy the device and it's this relationship that forms the heart of the film. This is another theme that crops up again and again in Del Toro's movies: familial bonds across generations. Yet another appears when you contrast Aurora and Jesus against de la Guardia and Angel; that of families that act in opposition to one another while serving as distorted mirrors of each other. Where the latter is an abusive, adversarial one, defined by what the two can get out of the other, the former is ultimately defined by selflessness and sacrifice. When Dieter is mortally injured, Angel wastes no time in finishing the old man off to that he can take over. When Jesus is similarly hurt during his confrontation with Angel, Aurora does whatever she can to save him, even offering her blood to him. No matter how monstrous Jesus becomes, Aurora's love for him never wavers. It's interesting to note that Aurora was adopted by Jesus after his son's death because we see over and over that the strongest bonds in Del Toro's films are those formed by surrogate families formed by circumstance. Blade and his mentor Whistler, for example. The orphans of THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE. Stacker and Mako In PACIFIC RIM and the "freaks" of HELLBOY I & II's B.P.R.D. The connections with the most solidarity are the ones that gain the strength to overcome hardships placed before them.

Finally, beyond the thematic elements, CRONOS shows that Del Toro was already firmly aware of how to distill down his numerous influences into something that is uniquely his own. The story is stuff of classical fairy-tales, the feel is like that of Hammer horror, and the visual influence of gothic art and Italian horror is all over the place. Notice how the face of the archangel statue has crumbled to the point it resembles a skull? Or that de la Guardia's clean room is like a sterile, industrial counterpart to the witch's lair in SUSPIRIA? Not to mention Del Toro shows a knack for bodily horror that puts him in company with Barker and Cronenberg. He may not strive for their flesh ripping extremes -- though I assure you that flesh does get ripped to spectacular effect in CRONOS's finale -- but he's clearly taken notes from them in how to make you squirm in your seat. Try not to cringe when the device's scorpion like appendage hovers over Jesus's bare wrist, almost as if in anticipation, before plunging in or the delight taken in giving us an up close look at Jesus's mouth being stitched shut by a mortician. The way Jesus cuts those stitches is equally unpleasant. These are not mere references and quotations though but rather recognizable elements that make up a unique piece's DNA.

Speaking of Barker, he's the creator I'd say Del Toro most resembles. Not only in their usage of violence and nightmarish transformations but in how both men love to re-purpose and subvert the religious iconography of their upbringings and that their sympathies lie steadfastly with the Outsider and the Other. You wouldn't be crazy for seeing a lot of NIGHTBREED in Guillermo's comic book adaptations and CRONOS is definitely Del Toro's HELLRAISER, his story of an ancient artifact that transforms a man into a vampiric monster. If you ask me, I think the Cronos device would look marvelous on a shelf next to the Lament Configuration.

One can imagine the relief when CRONOS became one of the big prize winners at Cannes, later sweeping the Golden Ariel Awards, Mexico's answer to the Oscars, and receiving considerable praise from notable critics, including Roger Ebert. It was an entire lifetime's worth of hard work paying off, opening doors and securing the career he wanted so badly. If he was to make CRONOS today, Guillermo muses, it would be a different movie because the director is so different now. Would it be a better movie? Maybe not. Flawed though it is, CRONOS was a necessary step in his development as a filmmaker. It's exactly the movie that he needed to be make when he did.

This review was part of the Criterion Blogathon, a six-day event celebrating film sponsored by Criterion Films. Click here to go to the Blogathon's main page and check out the other entries by participating blogs. Some friends of PSYCHOPLASMICS are also participating in the event and direct links to their reviews will be added as they go up.

Three Beer Theater: Micro-Brewed Reviews: The Fiend Without A Face
Yes, I Know: Seven Samurai
The Terrible Claw Reviews: Godzilla / Godzilla: King of Monsters!
Checkpoint Telstar: Robocop


  1. What an incredible story behind this film. I had no idea how much of his own money Del Toro poured into the film.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon and providing all this great background info!

  2. Yes this is fantastic look at what this film is in Del Toro's career. I'm a big fan of his too and like you say this one might get overlooked (good problem to have I guess, if you can make that many cool movies). Great job here putting this one in the spotlight. Thanks for joining the blogathon!

  3. One of my Criterion favorites from Mr. Del Toro together with the Devil's Backbone! Congratulations on your award!