The Mexican movie “Cronos” is undoubtedly one of the better horror films of the 1990s. At times unsettling, at other times moving and compassionate, this is a vampire film that never conforms to any of the given rules or wisdom regarding the genre. Beautifully made, this is a true gem; a thoughtful and creepy experience awaits those who seek it out.
The story follows aging Mexican antiques dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi, also in the director’s “The Devil’s Backbone”), who comes across an odd, beetle-shaped device in an old statue. As he inspects it, the artifact whirs to life, sprouting claws that dig into the flesh of his hand. The next day, Jesus finds himself feeling younger and more energetic than he has in years, a fact that he rightly attributes to the mysterious contraption.
However, this new vitality comes at a terrible price, as Jesus develops an uncontrollable thirst for human blood. His dark voyage of self-discovery is complicated by the violent attentions of the sinister millionaire Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) and his vicious thug of a son, Angel (Ron Perlman, “Hellboy” himself). Addicted to the use of the device, Jesus comes to realize that he is evolving both physically and emotionally into a monster that may be a threat to the granddaughter he loves so dearly.
Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors of recent years, having been responsible for the underrated killer cockroach flick “Mimic”, the wonderful ghost story “The Devil’s Backbone”, and more recently, “Hellboy”. “Cronos” is a perfect showcase for his skills, and del Toro directs it with a real sense of maturity and patience. This is a film where the horror creeps up slowly, through the seductive guise of a wondrous miracle that turns tragically sour.
Although it is a reworking of the vampire myth, the plotting in “Cronos” is measured and subtle, with no sudden or needless twists. Del Toro skillfully builds the solemn atmosphere without the use of any tacky devices or the unnecessary insertion of artificial set pieces. There’s even very little gore. Having said that, there are a few unpleasant moments, including one disturbing scene where Jesus licks blood from the floor of a restaurant bathroom.
Although suspenseful and quite unsettling in places, “Cronos” is not a film specifically played for sudden frights or shocks. This is the type of movie that sticks in your mind, providing thought provoking chills rather than jump out of your seat shrieks. This might make the proceedings seem somewhat slow to the impatient viewer, but I personally found the story completely absorbing.
Another aspect of this film that I particularly enjoyed was the very European feel to the set design and cinematography. The film has a beautiful look, and great attention has obviously been paid to even the smallest details. Every frame has an unobtrusive and gothic appearance, especially during the scenes in Jesus’ antique shop. This result in the viewer leaving with the impression that they have just watched a sinister fairy tale. The golden Cronos device itself is a real joy to behold, a fantastically crafted item whose baleful whirring heralds doom for all who would make use of it.
The acting in the film is excellent, especially from Luppi. Tamara Shanath, as his young granddaughter, is far less annoying than young actors often are in this sort of situation. Ron Perlman too is superb in the awkward role of a very human thug, whose obsession with plastic surgery provides the film’s only comic relief.
The film benefits greatly from the fact that in Jesus, we are given a well-written and believable character. The audience views the film through his eyes, and we accompany him through the horrors and wonders of the changes that are affecting his body and mind. This is done very successfully, and we come not only to empathize with the man, but more important to care about what happens to him. This of course makes the horror all the more effective.
I would strongly urge any film fans to seek out “Cronos”. A true work of craftsmanship, this film is fascinating, moving and unsettling. Del Toro is definitely one of the most promising directors to emerge from the horror genre in recent years, and given the strength of his recent Hollywood outings, his star will only continue to rise.
Guillermo del Toro (director) / Guillermo del Toro (screenplay)
CAST: Federico Luppi …. JesÃºs Gris
Ron Perlman …. Angel de la Guardia
Claudio Brook …. Dieter de la Guardia
Margarita Isabel …. Mercedes Gris