Yes, I took my sweet ass time to deliver another 90’s vampire movie but isn’t my sweet ass worth waiting for? Haters to the left.
Dir. Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Federico Luppi, Ron Pearlman and Claudio Brook
To my mind, I feel that Guillermo Del Toro’s first full-length feature film “Cronos” is one of the most fascinating non-vampire vampire films ever made. When I say ‘fascinating’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘best’ (considering a young Del Toro was still finding his legs in the cinema stream, this was but a stepping stone) but at the same time it is certainly respectable and a solid entry into at times, a dull and done over genre. At the same time, it provides an intimate message about what life to humanity means and how little time we have before we turn to dust.
“Cronos” stars Federico Luppi as Jesús Gris (which translates to “Grey Jesus”, keep that in mind), an elderly antique dealer stumbles across an unusual yet very ornate and beautifully crafted scarab-like device. While examining it, the object latches onto his body and swiftly injects him with some strange, alchemical serum. As Jesús discovers, inside the fine metal-work resides an incredibly old and incredibly unfathomable insect that produces the solution which grants the injected immortality. At first Jesús is thrilled- he is gifted with renewed vigour in appearance and talents- he starts to look younger, he possesses brilliant reflexes and a keen mind. He can keep up with his grandchildren, express himself freely and make love to his wife after not being able to for so long. However, as he finds out, there is a price eternity demands and it is not one all of us can pay without losing ourselves plus there are people out there who wish to possess the scarab for themselves. Gotta say, I never expected Ron Pearlman to be in a Mexican film, so there ya go!
As some of you in the audience may have guessed, “Cronos” is a reference to the concept of chronology, the movement and dimension of time and space. In the case of the scarab, it reverses time within Jesús’s body and mind, but at the same time prolongs his lifespan. Given Del Toro’s affection for mythology, “Cronos” possibly has ties to the Greek legend of the Titan Cronus, who overthrew his father Uranus (GROW UP) and ruled over the skies and humanity until his own son Zeus usurped him for the crown. The Cronos Device in the film is a god-like tool, formulated from the mysterious practice of alchemy, when science and the preternatural are melded together to produce a hybrid result. As a result, Jesús himself becomes an almost god-like being with one foot in the Wondrous Beyond and the Now.
The film itself follows the same doctrine- it is a unique combination of horror, drama, art house and gore but at the same time it possesses a sensitive charm and vulnerability to it. Luppi isn’t who you would immediately would think of as a vampire, but the thing is, I don’t think this film is trying to tell us that his character is a vampire per se. He is vampiric (that is, requiring blood to live) but he retains his humanity and his passion. There appears to be some unspoken agreement between the device and Jesús that is mutual if not symbiotic- so long as Jesús ingests blood, the device will provide him with vitality. The main rule of alchemy is that in order to gain, the practitioner must be prepared to give for the exchange to be successful.
Personally I love the alchemy angle in this film- so much vampire/immortality related media relies on a viral infection or a supernatural curse, here it is a mix of the medical, pharmaceutical, occult, and entrepreneurial. Not only that, but the film presents us with the notion that if other people knew about such a device as this, they would stop at nothing to attain it. Most of the horror in this film comes from Pearlman’s sneering jerk Angel de la Guardia (anybody else notice the irony in that name?) and his ruthless shark of an uncle, Dieter (Claudio Brook). Dieter wishes to possess the Cronos Device, and the things that he does to poor Jesús is downright clinically sociopathic. Thankfully Jesús isn’t prepared to take this horse puckey from the de la Guardia without a bloody fight… emphasis on “bloody”. Speaking of red stuff, just in case you were starting to get all paranoid you were going to watch a fairy tale (by the way, fairytales and horror stories are one of the same, ever heard of the Brothers Grimm?), “Cronos” has it’s fair share of blood and a teeny bit of guts thrown in for good measure. It’s all done in good taste mind, but it is incredibly well done and spell-binding to watch. Yum, yum.
The aesthetic of the film is exactly what you would expect from Del Toro, a style that would become trademark in most of his films to come- surreal and deeply imaginative imagery, fraternization of entomology, mythology and biology yet with a heart and soul. Luppi has a definitive and quiet strength in his role, reminding you of a warm and friendly grandfather one moment and a dangerous soul of wisdom the next. Pearlman is good though he looked a little out of place even though Del Toro re-wrote the character to be an ex-pat American who despised living in Mexico. Still dunno why his name remained that way though. Oh well, it was still a treat to see him pop up looking absolutely NO different to the way he does now. I think Ron was born looking that way, he came out of his mother as the leonine badass we see him as today. Claudio Brook is very fine as Angel’s dick father- he isn’t the heavy breathing imposing type, instead he is very precise- he knows what he wants and he will stop at nothing to get it. The secondary cast is great, a standout being young Tamara Shanath as Jesús’s grand-daughter Aurora (whose name means “sunrise”, are we noticing a pattern in names here?). The scenes between her and Luppi are among the warmest, sweetest moments in the movie and you get a sense that they really are related and have a history.
If I had a gripe about the movie, it only comes from Del Toro’s fledgling experience at the time. The director was abundant in skill, but at times, the pace of the film tended to wander and could have been clipped down by a few minutes. I appreciated the meditative stance the film took when meditation was needed, but lingering too long tended to make me shift in my seat. That was the only major complain I felt I needed to broach. Other viewers may not enjoy the film based how it chooses not to focus or clearly specify the vampiric aspect, but that’s their problem and in my eyes, they are missing out on the bigger picture.
“Cronos” apart from its unusual divergent is a film about the fragility of the human body but the immortality of the soul and the legacy it leaves behind plus the value of our lives. We really don’t have a lot of time to spend here and it is up to us to make it count. The joy and terror of life comes from the fact it is fleeting and “Cronos” is an allegory for the tragedy and cost of living forever. A promising debut by a promising director who would become one of the best and most prominent that deserves to be seen and thought about at length. While this isn’t Del Toro’s finest moment, it shows us that even as a young pup, our Mexican Maestro had it goin’.
Review written by Bea Harper