A film from Guillermo Del Toro is always something that is enamoured by both the wondrous and the weird. The filmmaker seems to have an affinity with worlds beyond our own. Many directors toy with the curious sub-genre of the intermediary fantasy, that is to say the type of fable that combines the mundanity of real life with the infiltrating fingers of the fabulous, as opposed to outright fantasies like Krull, LOTR and The Dark Crystal – the difference between The Mummy and Stardust, say – but only a very select few actually conjure up something that genuinely feels sieved from the other side. Harry Potter may have a foot on either side of the phantom divide and be the most immediately recognisable example of the form, but you get the impression that Del Toro is actually unaware that there even is a borderline between the mythical and the normal. To him, the fractious and occasionally volatile land of Faerie is like a part of town that he crosses every day of his life just to get to work. And this calm and almost indifferent affinity to the strange and the esoteric is what makes his films so much more magical than the Potters and their ilk. He doesn’t even seem to realise that he is consciously enmeshing two worlds together. Whether for commercial or for personal gain – Mimic, which followed on from this, Blade II as opposed to Pan’s Labyrinth, and his couplet of Hellboys, which straddle both ends of the spectrum by being popular and personal – Del Toro embraces the possibility of a system of myriad existence. Not quite a symbiosis in general terms – although you could certainly argue that the plot of Cronos necessarily concerns a symbiotic relationship between its lead character and the titular device – but one, more often than not, of mutual indifference. It is perhaps this lack of immediate confrontation between worlds that lends his films their childlike innocence. Young minds simply accept situations as being true, whether they concern vampires, demons or faeries. And Del Toro certainly maintains this attitude within the body of his work.
His first full feature, Cronos (1993) typifies all of this, blending within its fragile, unorthodox tale all of the themes that would infatuate him in his subsequent and more accomplished films.
A marvellous, amber-hued prologue tells of an 16th Century alchemist forging a device – an ornate, scarab-shaped golden clockwork effigy – that can bestow eternal life upon its owner. In a neat twist, the Cronos device outlives the unfortunate alchemist, who had fled to Mexico to avoid the Inquisition. Somehow, the contraption has wound-up hidden inside an Archangel statue in the antique store of the elderly Jesus Gris (Frederico Luppi), who cares for and dotes upon his little granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath). Stumbling across the Cronos, after a series of strange callers to the store seem determined to find it for themselves, Jesus is alarmed when the beautiful and highly complex device becomes activated, anchors itself to him and injects him with the very fluid that can prolong life. Even if Jesus suddenly appears to shed years, enough to bemuse his wife Mercedes (Margarita Isabel) when he removes his whitened moustache, it is not only Aurora who notices the disconcerting behaviour that he is also suddenly prone to. For, it transpires, that in return for eternal life, the Cronos device also demands blood, and this turns the unfortunate user into a vampire. Every silver lining … as they say.
But Jesus has got some other problems to overcome. Those mysterious strangers who showed so much interest in his store have been employed to track down the Cronos by the rich, but diseased and dying, De La Guardia (Claudio Brook), who seeks the device to fight back against the cancers that are consuming him, bit by bit. Chief amongst his henchmen is his nephew, the hulking Angel (Ron Perlman in the first of many appearances the Manhattan-born actor would make for Del Toro), who cares little for the withered and embittered old man, but whose loyalty can easily be bought with the promise of what his wealth can bestow. They will stop at nothing to retrieve the Cronos and, vampirised or not, Jesus is going to have his hands full if Angel catches up with him. Thus, with his own body now altering radically and its cravings difficult to either ignore or to quench, Jesus finds himself in a terrible dilemma. He now has the gift that his persecutor wants, but he knows its terrible price too. And how can he face his granddaughter … like this?
So, like a blood-tainted, Latin-flavoured Antiques Roadshow, Cronos ransacks the attic for ancient valuables and takes the vampire myth in for a swift valuation.
Although, thematically and stylistically, Del Toro takes his cues from Gothic artwork, from the literature of Shelley, Le Fanu and Stoker, and visually from the films of Bava, Argento and even from the 60's Poe-inspired Corman, Cronos is a very Clive Barker-ish type of story. It deals with alchemy, with the narcissistic quest for eternal life and for personal gain, and dovetails with vicarious characters coming into contact with a magical device that can grant such desires – for a certain price, of course – and with the obsessive nature of devotion and of a power the extent of which can only ever be hinted at. Barker always toyed with contraptions and trinkets that could open paradoxical doors, and it is to Hellraiser, or The Hellbound Heart to give Barker's Cenobitised story its original moniker, that Cronos seems to be a spiritual sibling. Like the Lament Configuration, the Cronos device is both master and servant to those that wield it. Offering the dream of immortality, but demanding something in return. It is a fair enough deal, I suppose – the yin and yang of promise and corruption. And the film is all about both ends of that spectrum. It seems to say that the desire for something that is not, by rights, endemic to our basic nature brings out the worst in people … and, by stark contrast, that those of noble and selfless worth who inadvertently come into contact with such an infernal tool may still retain those more refined qualities, albeit in a far more testing condition. The Cronos device, then, is a flip of the coin. Like Hellraiser's puzzle-box, a doorway to angels for some, or to demons for others.
The thing, itself, is beautiful as well as frightening. Views inside the Cronos device – all golden cogs and wheels – may have been designed to emulate the inner-workings of a watch but to modern movie audiences they will also seem to foreshadow the colossal clockwork ingenuity of the Lionsgate Pictures logo too! The barely glimpsed insectoid denizen of the piece is loathsome in appearance, yet we never really believe that it is actually evil. The darker elements of the story, as is so often the case with Del Toro's work, revolve around the humans – who are unable to quell their own desires and think nothing of the harm that they cause to the innocents around them. Monsters definitely exist for the filmmaker, but they are rarely the more fantastical of his creations. Del Toro begins his stories from a familial and religious standpoint – Cronos is actually the most overt of the lot – and the supernatural only seems to settle around this framework like a dew-coated spider-web. Resonances and moods are highlighted and accentuated by the shuddery caress of things “from beyond”, yet the majority of the narrative or, at least, its most emotive parts, are, as with the extraordinary Pan's Labyrinth, bound-over by reality and the more obvious dangers that it courts. In many fantasies, it is cultural etiquette that we seek to escape from our world into their magical realm … but in a Del Toro film, there seem to be as many things seeking to escape into our own world from theirs. As we have seen, he doesn't really draw a distinction between the two destinations. They are merely there. In Cronos, the alchemist was clearly onto something, but his discoveries and the magic they contain is never broached. Nor is the relationship between immortality and vampirism a cogent concern. It simply happens. But this is fable-telling. And there is no-one who can do this as emotionally or as beguilingly as Guillermo Del Toro.
The casting, as ever with one of his films, is both eclectic and immaculate.
As Jesus Gris, Frederico Luppi is a Mexican Jason Robards. There is patience and weariness to the character. He is old and set in his ways, yet he is not at all cynical. Even when he undergoes his transformation, and the obvious difficulties that it brings with it, let alone the more unsavoury traits that it demands, he never loses his dignity, nor his tired sense of almost grumpy humour. I mentioned that he was set in his ways – well this applies to his occupation as the proprietor of his antiques store and his dogged refusal to give in to Angel and his father, but there is a very forward-thinking and liberal side to his personality as well. Of course it is resolutely common to witness the love and devotion between a grandparent and their grandchild. I see this all the time in my own family, and cherish it deeply. But there is a wonderful, full-time chemistry between Jesus and little Aurora that is unspoken for much of the time, yet still clearly heartfelt. Del Toro doesn't feel the need to tug at the emotional cords, though. He is not that glaring in his intentions. We don't need to hear of former losses, or of sentimental ties – we just accept the relationship and we fall for it. And we don't want it shattered by heartless villains, whether Grandpa is a vampire or not!
Ron Perlman can be an ogre, an imbecile, a muscle-bound demon, vampire mercenary, a Viking chieftain, a priest or even a lion-headed old romantic, yet with his cuddly hair, hangdog smile and rounded edges, he can also be a likeably hard-assed variation on Will Ferrel. As the bully-boy villain of the piece, he knows that he should be little more than a henchman, but somehow he makes the role of Angel come alive with nuance, attitude and personality. He may beat Jesus to a pulp, but we still find it terribly hard to hate him. We can't help but sympathise with his lot in life. Constantly harassed and harangued by his health-imprisoned uncle, Angel doesn't seem allowed to discover any life or personality of his own. Petulant, sarcastic and cynical, he is nevertheless bound-over to provide for his ungrateful master and to do his bidding. We never quite understand what Angel believes about all this magical mumbo-jumbo, but then this is not necessary. He has his errands to run, and even if he is somewhat clumsy and ineffectual in many ways, he can always resort to his fists.
Brook's De la Guardia, himself, is a crippled wretch of shrivelled humanity. That he incarcerates the shreds of his existence in a veritable sterile fortress, festooned with the organs that have since failed him, now residing in a Frankenstein's lab-like freak-show of bell-jars, helps make him one of the oddest villains around. Del Toro is careful to ensure that we totally understand why he is on this quest – despite what an incredulous Angel says behind his back about the whole affair. Brook is careful not to portray him as merely a boo-hiss bad guy, although we could certainly never warm to him. He is actually one of the creepiest elements in the film, a strangled, emaciated husk of a man so determined to hang on to the blighted existence that he has got that he will endanger even the life of a little girl to get what he wants.
And on the subject of Little Aurora, we find that even though Tamara Shanath barely utters a word in the entire film, her presence is one of melancholic calm and charm. As usual with a Del Toro picture, it is the child who represents the fantasy. You can have all the imps and demons and faeries flitting about that you like, but the most transparent aspect of reality being invaded by such things is when it is being seen through the eyes of a child, and how they react to it. Cronos has little moments of intense poignancy – not as tragic as we would experience in his later films, however – that offer a spellbinding glimpse of acceptance and understanding. Aurora knows what is happening to her grandfather and, at first, she attempts to save him from the Cronos in a little game of hide and seek, secreting the device in a homage, perhaps, to Charles Laughton's Night Of The Hunter within her own teddy-bear. But the touching moment when she allows him to return home, literally from the dead, and then finds a place for him to sleep – a toybox littered with teddy-bears and dolls to keep him company – is so subtly played that its impact only hits you after the scene has gone by. The tragedy of vampirism and its legacy for those swept up in its coils has been exquisitely explored before in The Hunger, Near Dark, Interview With The Vampire and Let The Right One In, and Cronos only adds another layer of sentiment. Basically, Jesus could be suffering from Alzheimers, dementia, leukaemia or some other degenerative condition, let alone vampirism, and the concept would still be the same – a loved one's acceptance of something hard to understand and even harder to bear. This is always made more harrowing when it is a child who has to come to terms with it but, as Del Toro understands so completely, it is the child who is both quicker to make that acceptance and able to endure more of it because of their simple and enviable capacity for love and trust and optimism. The name Aurora must also be concerned with the spectral lights in the night sky seen over certain parts of the world – for these would be the only naturally occurring illumination in the heavens that Jesus would be able to see without coming to harm.
Therefore, the family is still the issue that concerns Del Toro the most. Seen in virtually everything that he has done, he compares and contrasts two dynasties in Cronos. The similarity between the Gris Family and the De la Guardia clan is that they are both fractured and both haphazardly re-knitted. Jesus and Mercedes care for their granddaughter, one level of family removed. The De la Guardias are the same – only in this case it is the Uncle and the Nephew who are together. But whereas one set-up is bound by love, the other is forced, threatened and bullied. However, it is a clever device that sees to it that Jesus Gris, who has been protecting and caring for little Aurora, much like Angel has been looking after his uncle, becomes the very person who will come to need the care and attention of the child. But whereas, the De la Guardia's relationship is weaned on distrust and hatred and is destined to fall apart, the Gris' can only be strengthened by this bizarre turn of events. Of course it is highly symbolic and parable-like – we have Jesus being resurrected and Angel as the instrument of death, their own names unmasked hallmarks of Catholicism, as well as the whole saga playing out Christmas and the New Year period - but Del Toro is able to develop genuine tenderness on the one hand, and a believably simmering resentment on the other.
Although sedately paced, the film is still quite unpredictable. Although there are deaths, they are not of the conventional sort that we associate with a vampire film. In fact, even the word vampire is never actually uttered. Thankfully, this doesn't then mean that we have to endure some other term for the creatures – no walkers, dark-seekers or infected here, I'm happy to say – that filmmakers employ in a ridiculous attempt to pretend that they are doing “something different”. The way that the dialogue actually flits, on occasion, from Spanish to English and back again, is also weirdly cool. It breaks any reverie or complacency that subtitle-reading can induce, suddenly jerking you into the picture as though the speakers were actually addressing you. Traditional horror is eschewed in favour of thuggery, although there are some ghastly images on offer that actually remind a little bit of the fleetingly glimpsed atrocities of Angel Heart, such as a blood-victim hanging upside-down from the ceiling in the alchemist's chamber. But Cronos rarely feels like a horror film at all. The sight of a little girl caring for her elderly grandfather, who just happens to have an aversion to sunlight and a peculiar hunger for blood, completely eradicates any of the standard trappings of the genre. What little scenes of gore there are on display are also surprisingly tame, with only the stitching shut of a corpse's mouth and close-ups of the Cronos' scorpion-like tail injecting itself into human flesh making you wince. The special effects, though, are very good considering the more-than-modest budget. Shots of Jesus peeling off his old, dead skin – horribly compounded by the work of the mortician – to reveal the unearthly glowing white flesh of his new self are incredibly eerie. He comes to resemble a walking pupae, which was surely the idea, considering the concept of having an insect at the heart of the Cronos. There is a simple but still very nice effect when sunlight penetrates the dark attic domain of the vampirised Jesus and shafts of burning silver light burn through the shadows like laser-beams. The staples in his broken face are another nifty touch.
Despite the redolent mood that he is after, Del Toro still manages to create some suspense during the tense final act, but Cronos is a film that relies more upon quirky set-pieces than all-out action. In fact, there is some clumsiness to his handling of the violence towards the end, although this is more down to the lack of money and time than any ineptitude on the director's part. There is also that delicious black comedy that the director has employed in his films ever since. Unsubtle quips in the morgue from blasé morticians and the fact that out hero ends-up with his clothes fastened-up back-to-front are cute asides. The laid-back and talkative approach that Angel has when going about his violent business is also something that wouldn't be out of place for a hitman in a Coen Brothers movie. It gives the film a warped ambience that is distinctly individual. Angel has a thing about his nose, too. He asks opinions about what size and shape he should go for when he gets some plastic surgery, but this is all marvellously rendered null and void when he gets a smack for being inept that actually breaks it for him. And then another one, later on. Kudos should also go the traditional image of the vampire awakening and rising from his coffin, Lugosi-style – albeit twisted right around by Del Toro's actually quite humorous and moving variation.
For Del Toro, the world that we know is not so much as being constantly invaded by some other mystical realm, it is as though the barrier between the two is a permeable membrane that simply allows lots of to-ings and fro-ings to take place. In Del Toro’s universe, no-one is ever merely good or evil. Whether they are human, vampire, demon, angel or fairy, they have minds of their own and motivations that can be either definitive and driving, or subject to the whims of each new encounter or dilemma that unfolds. Even in Blade II, Luke Goss’ ravenous and vengeful Nomak is also an embittered son as well as a bloodsucking rebel to the old order. Del Toro doesn’t judge a book by its cover, he almost instinctively understands his characters, fair or foul, and allows them the chance to live and breathe, and to make choices of their own. This was a fresh approach back then in 1993, and it still feels fresh and unusual even now.
Personally, I love Cronos and even prefer its peculiar, limbo-jaded mood to the emotional pain that haunts The Devil’s Backbone, which possibly sounds like sacrilege to a number of people. It does betray its ambitious concept with a meagre budget, but this cannot thwart what is essentially a character-based conflict that uses alchemy and black magic as historically credible facets in an absorbing Greek Tragedy. This is not a tale about a vampire apocalypse, nor is it one that delineates between good and evil. Cronos is Faustian, certainly, but it also feels modern and cogent with the crises that we all face – staving off the ravages getting old or of falling ill, the desire for success and the sense of familial devotion being put to the test. It is a small film, actually a lot slower and more closely reined-in than you might think considering how flamboyant Pan's Labyrinth turned out to be and how action-oriented the Hellboy couplet and Blade II were. There is the air of an extended television play, a sort of diabolical drama, about it, but this only adds to the fascinating kernel of ideas that its creator coined. It marked Del Toro out as being someone who would not stray from his own personal vision. And, asides from Mimic (which could have been so much better if the filmmaker had been allowed to pour his heart and soul into it), this has been his mantra and code ever since.
Whilst it is a shame that his version of The Hobbit will now never be seen, I am also slightly relieved that he eventually left the project. For me, in simple knee-jerk terms, it is Peter Jackson's baby – and it always has been. The Kiwi has the breadth and scope for the epic qualities of the story, the characters and the vastness of the undertaking, and a considerable spiritual investment in the production after his initial tour of duty in Middle Earth. Guillermo Del Toro, as far as I am concerned, is the master of more intimate, more poignant tales of the supernatural and the fantastical. As big an alternate world as Hellboy hinted at, the important thing was that it was still only hinted at. The Hobbit would, perhaps, have stretched Del Toro into a realm that would crush, bloat or over-stretch his imagination. Jackson has proved that he can work at such a complex and leviathan scale very comfortably. And, rather poetically, I should add that I don't believe that Jackson would be able to handle a Hellboy movie … only Del Toro could do that.
Cronos certainly has its detractors who watch the film and simply wonder what all the fuss is about. But this is intelligent and original film-making from someone who is certainly one of the most imaginative treasures that we have at work in the business today. This first important stepping-stone finally comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion's region A coded release. And it comes very highly recommended.