An aging seller of antiques is bitten by a strange device, begins to thirst for blood, and is rendered immortal, yet the word “vampiro” is never uttered in Cronos (1993), allowing our experience of the film to expand far beyond the limits of genre or myth. This is a film where the balance of explicit and occult knowledge is kept carefully calibrated at all times. We know only what’s essential, even if what’s essential sometimes includes the seemingly trivial. Every character, even the most minor, is endowed with distinct attributes, eccentricities and preoccupations, most all of them concerning the imperfections of the flesh, while at the film’s centre lies an insectile machine inexplicably compelled to merge with flesh, blood and bone, luring all those who make contact with it into fathomless addiction.
When I first saw Cronos I was delighted to discover a horror film that seemed to share the labyrinthine thematic network of David Cronenberg’s corporeal cinema, so rich as it is in cerebral metaphor and arresting, guttural imagery. Yet Guillermo Del Toro, Cronos’ writer and director, would prove to possesses his own unique imaginative universe, one which embraces the fabulous and the supernatural in ways antithetical to Cronenberg’s materialist sensibility. Cronos was but the first giant step in a prolific career that would quickly, and rather deftly shift between the commercial and the personal. Nevertheless, even after The Devil’s Backbone (01) and Pan’s Labyrinth (06), Cronos remains my favourite Del Toro film. It’s not as lush nor as honed as the later work, but it has a shaggy perfection all its own, and that special air of an exuberant, exacting young artist trying everything for the first time. Del Toro has said that the worst thing a filmmaker can have is everything he or she needs, and maybe there’s something about Cronos that generates some extra electricity out of sheer hunger and determination. The film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.
So Jesús Gris (the great Federico Luppi, giving a marathon performance) unknowingly falls victim to the 400 year-old device. It comes to him by accident, latching onto first his hand and then his heart, its golden claws inserting themselves into his skin. Thenceforth desirous of human blood, Gris is haunted by need, and like any junky he endures humiliating scenes to fulfill this need, such as licking some stranger’s nosebleed off the marble floor of a public washroom. Gris is hunted by one Ángel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman, so funny and precise in his bits of behaviour), the nephew of a dying industrialist (Buñuel regular Claudio Brook) who knows of the device’s powers and wants it for himself. But Ángel would just as soon never find the device; he’s waited too long already for his uncle to die and leave him the generous inheritance which will finally allow him to get that nose job he’s dreamt of for so long.
Death and vanity loom over everything in Cronos, and the film brims with ghoulish humour. It also features moments of touching connection between Gris and his eight year-old granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath). Aurora speaks little and rarely drives the action, yet she might be the film’s real heroine, hiding the device in her teddy bear—just like little Pearl hides the money in The Night of the Hunter (55)—and gradually learning to let go of her grandparent as a child’s first brush with death. That sense of loss and wonder is what lingers in the film’s final moments, and most especially its closing dedication to Del Toro’s grandmother, their relationship having inspired the one shared by Gris and Aurora. It’s a satisfying, somber resolution to a captivating journey through morbid pursuits, one that in all its errant Catholicism, its peculiar relationship to the United States, its wily suspicions about its colonialist past, and its inventive violence, could perhaps have only come from Mexico.