An elderly antique dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), with his eight-year-old granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath), discovers an ancient artifact that once belonged to a 16th century alchemist. Unbeknownst to Gris, the device – which resemble an ornate mechanical beetle – houses an immortal parasite that will grant eternal life to its host. The cost? An extreme aversion to daylight and an agonising thirst for human blood.
Many of the aesthetic qualities and thematic devices that Mexican director Guillermo del Toro would employ in later movies are already on the boil in his debut feature, Cronos. At the time of release, one of his homeland’s most expensive productions, this dark, disturbed, vampiric tale of the cost of immortality has not aged particularly well yet still yields some satisfyingly thought-provoking (and occasionally yucky) moments.
The film tracks the travels of an antique angel statue which contains a centuries-old bug-like device, armed with deadly spikes that plunge unexpectedly into the flesh of whoever grasps it. That flesh belongs to Jesus Gris (Federico Lupi), an antique store owner who takes delivery of the angel and unwittingly feeds the entity that lives inside the scarab. Rejuvenated with the healing vigour that the bug affords its host, Gris soon learns of the downside to eternal youth – a need for human blood.
Soon, Gris is visited by Angel de la Guardia (a nutty Ron Perlman, aka Hellboy) who buys the statue on behalf of his dying uncle, millionaire businessman Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook). When the statue is found to be empty, retribution is swift. But, being unkillable, Gris seeks revenge on the man that tried to murder him.
Religious metaphors have always played a strong part in del Toro’s films and Cronos represents the director ladling it on pretty thick. A protagonist named Jesus Gris, who rises from the dead; at least two integral references to angels; the innocent and committed disciple, represented in the film by Jesus’ granddaughter, the silent Aurora (Tamara Shanath). This exploration of religion via horror is overstated, even heavy-handed at times; it would be a technique he further explored and enhanced, increasingly from the child’s perspective, in The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and as producer of The Orphanage (2007).
Cronos works best when it embraces the grotesque, utilising classic influences as diverse as H.P Lovecraft and Britain’s Hammer horror films. A scene at a lavish ball, when Jesus first realises his need for corpulent sustenance and licks spilt blood of a public restroom floor, is every bit as sick as it sounds; also unnerving is the sequence when Jesus locks himself in his bathroom and mainlines the bug-needle straight into his chest. One set-up involving Aurora watching Jesus slurp blood from a warm corpse is way OTT, though del Toro uses black humour to lighten the mood particularly well. (Perlman is a wicked joy; an extended sequence in a mortuary is mordantly funny.)
An ambitious and generally effective first film, without a doubt, though one that pales against the later work of the fine director, Cronos was a tough sell for the local distributor – a subtitled horror film was something new altogether in 1993 – and played to arthouse crowds during its brief Australian theatrical season.
The DVD features a director commentary, EPK interviews with del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (who would become the director’s long-term collaborator) and production art. For genre fans, it’s an all-encompassing treat.