Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro does not begin and end with the masterful Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), as is brilliantly evidenced in his first feature film Cronos (1993). One of the most intelligent—and strangely moving—horror films ever made, Cronos gets my vote for del Toro’s second best film to date. In fact, it’s a film that is enhanced by reassessing it after seeing Pan’s Labyrinth. The two films not only share the same writer-director and cinematographer (Guillermo Navarro)—as well as at least one actor (star Federico Luppi shows up in Pan)—they’re not dissimilar in tone or feel either. This is especially true concerning the use of a little girl—and her perception of the world—as central to both stories. While Pan is a fuller, more expressive work, there’s much to be gotten from this earlier work. Over the years, there have been a number of claims (usually by publicists) about movies that have “reinvented” the vampire story. In the case of del Toro’s Cronos, however, the claim is 100 percent true. Yes, Cronos is a vampire movie with a couple of the standard elements (blood-drinking, sunlight and the old stake through the heart), but that’s about the extent of it.
Vampirism, in this case, stems from the researches of a 16th-century alchemist who fashions what’s called the “Cronos” device. This bizarre golden-clockwork insect affixes itself to the user’s body, injecting a fluid that extends life—at a price, of course. The story is built around an aging antique dealer, Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi), who discovers the piece in a statue of an archangel and accidentally inflicts himself with its blessing and curse. Complicating matters is a dying industrialist, Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook), who wants the device for himself at any cost, and forces his beleaguered, sadistic nephew, Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman), to get it. Always in the background is Gris’ granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath), who clings to, protects and loves her grandfather through it all. (When she turns her toy box into a makeshift coffin for Granddad, you realize just how much a true original del Toro is.) By turns, the film is creepy, violent, horrific, funny and tender. Everywhere del Toro’s creativity is in evidence—from the hardly accidental use of symbolic character names to the visual elegance of it all. A must-see for horror fans and admirers of Pan’s Labyrinth, and with the DVD of the film out of print and available only from pricey dealers these days, this showing is an opportunity to savor.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke