TYPE OF MEDIA: Film
Of the wave of Mexican directors who gripped Hollywood in the early-to-mid 2000s, Guillermo del Toro is probably the most prominent. These days he’s mainstream director and producer who shepherds the works of other Mexican and South American directors through Hollywood, but looking at his work it’s clear he hasn’t strayed from his roots as a monster movie geek. One of his pet projects is the Hellboy series, he produced the horror film Mama which basically brought the Spanish American legend of La Llarona to American audiences, and his first feature film shows a surprisingly confident grasp of the horror genre considering he made it when he was just in his late 20s. That film is Cronos, and it might be one of the best movies about immortality ever made.
Cronos opens with some backstory, detailing how in the city of Veracruz (located in what is now Mexico) in 1536, an alchemist developed a machine called the Cronos device that can prolong people’s lives indefinitely. Jumping forward to the 90s, elderly antique dealer Jesús Gris finds the Cronos device hidden in a statue of an angel. Jesús accidentally activates the Cronos device and it stabs him with a needle, causing him to look and feel younger but also making him crave blood. As Jesús battles his growing addiction to the Cronos device, he also has to contend with the thug Angel de la Guardia and his dying, wealthy uncle Dieter, who has been searching for the Cronos device for years.
If you couldn’t guess from the whole ‘craving blood’ thing, Cronos is a vampire movie. What makes it unique is that it quickly cuts past the romance and allure of vampires to show them for what they really are: old men who fear death and want to feel young again. As it’s set in Mexico, Cronos also shows how deep that fear is by using the overwhelming Catholocism of the country. The movie has plenty of religious imagery, from the angel in which the Cronos device is hidden to the cross necklaces many characters wear, but it’s contrasted with much larger images of ticking clocks. Jesús and Dieter should have faith in a heavenly reward, but their biggest concern is running out of time.
Meanwhile Angel (played by Ron Perlman and easily the movie’s best character) couldn’t care less about immortality. His two chief desires are inheriting his uncle’s fortune and getting rhinoplasty, and unlike Dieter he seems like he wants to actively enjoy life. Perlman plays Angel with this strangely comedic swagger for a villain, whistling a menacing version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” while he’s out on business and cursing like Bob Odenkirk when his uncle calls for him. He’s a ridiculous character, but he’s also the only one who seems to understand the absurdity of old men cursing themselves to live forever.
Cronos was Guillermo del Toro’s first feature film, made when he was just 28 years old. It’s a remarkably mature movie for someone so young, though looking at the cheesy prosthetic makeup and comedic tonal shifts you can tell he’s still a bit too enamored with his monster movie influences. He also doesn’t really do much with Jesús’ granddaughter and seems to forget about his wife completely halfway through the movie. However, the core of the film is still well-executed.
The pantheon of good vampire films is crowded, but there’s room for Cronos both for its distinct take on the subject and for taking the genre beyond its European roots. If you like vampire films or Guillermo del Toro and you haven’t seen Cronos, you should rectify that during your next movie night.