With Halloween just around the corner, horror film buffs will have a blast watching “Cronos,” Guilllermo Del Toro’s first feature film. Released in 1993, it stars Del Toro favorite Ron Perlman speaking both English and Spanish as the film was made in Mexico. Now part of the Criterion Collection, “Cronos” tells the tales of a man slowly transforming into a vampire. An overused subject today, but keep in mind this is Del Toro we are talking about. His vampire doesn’t sparkle in the sunlight. In fact, there is a rather gruesome scene where the vampire peels off his own skin. Praise should go to the make-up department.
The story’s opening prologue informs us that the Cronos in question is a mythical device devised by an alchemist centuries ago to increase a person’s lifespan. After the brutal death of the alchemist, the Cronos disappeared never to be used again. That is until the aptly named Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), a kindly old owner of an antique store, finds it hidden in a statue. Along with his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) he studies the device with curiosity wondering if it is some kind of toy.
Not quite. The Cronos, shaped like a golden scarab, takes a life of its own when Jesus holds it in his hand. Its legs spring out a grab hold, leaving his hand badly bleeding. A stinger pops out of the rear end and injects itself in his skin. A beautiful shot of the interior of the device show many golden cogs turning around what seems to be some kind of insect. Later that night Jesus finds himself so thirsty he nearly empties a whole pitcher of water. The thirst doesn’t seem to go away and when he sees a plate of red meat in the refrigerator he has a rather disturbing facial expression.
Yet Jesus suddenly feels much younger. He shaves his mustache to the surprise of Mercedes (Margarita Isabel) his wife of many years. She dismisses the gesture as some sort of odd thing for an old man to do, but Aurora knows the truth as she watches her grandfather grow addicted to the Cronos.
Further trouble comes from Angel (Ron Perlman) a smoothly dressed thug charged with recovering the device for his rich uncle Dieter De La Guardia (Claudio Brook). Dieter’s health has deteriorated to the point that he lives in an isolated room filled with air filters and his operated organs on display in glass jars. When he learns Jesus has the Cronos and refuses to give it up, Dieter warns him the device has very specific sets of instructions and not following them may have very negative consequences for its user.
The story has some very interesting religious ideas. Dieter attributes religious connotations to the Cronos, saying the Bible is full of references to insects. For instance, Jesus Christ once walked on water much like certain insects. If Jesus had been in contact with an insect like the one inside the Cronos, it would offer an explanation for his resurrection. Then there are the names of these characters. Jesus Gris is not that far off from Jesus Christ. Perlman’s character is called Angel, although he acts more as an angel of death.
As for the performances, everyone involved delivers brilliant work. Luppi especially stands out, starting out as a kindly old man telling stories to his granddaughter and then later licking blood off the floor of a public restroom. Perlman makes for a funny villain with quirks such as asking people what nose would suit him better for the plastic surgery he wants to have. Alternating between English and Spanish, he proves that people are always more at ease cursing in their native language when angry. Then there is Claudio Brook as the dying old millionaire who reminded of John Huston in “Chinatown” or Gabriele Ferzetti in “Once Upon in the West.” Although confined by his infirmity, he still comes off as a formidable adversary with his knowledge of things that are beyond Jesus’ understanding.
The story itself is a little hard to pin down. Is it a horror movie? With its substantial amount of blood and an undead character it certainly qualifies, but it also has comedic element. Then again the interaction between Jesus and his granddaughter almost give it a fairy tale aspect.
One thing is for sure: if you like your vampire stories with a bit more substance and less romance, you will love “Cronos” this Halloween.