Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Federico Luppi (Jesus Gris), Ron Perlman (Angel de la Guardia), Claudio Brook (Dieter de la Guardia), Isabel (Mercedes Gris), Tamara Shanath (Aurora Gris), Daniel Giménez Cacho (Tito), Mario Ivan Martinez (Alchemist), Juan Carlos Colombo (Funeral Director)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1993
Country: Mexico
Cronos Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
CronosWhy has immortality been such an appealing topic for art for so many ages? Is it because we fear death and what lies beyond and we will do anything to avoid dealing with those questions? Maybe it is because, especially in the past century, modern medicine has found and continues to find so many new and inventive ways to prolong life. Or maybe it is because we as people constantly desire to experience more, and we are frustrated that our time on earth is limited beyond our control.

So, what if we could live forever? Would it be a good thing? Not according to Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature, Cronos, which was released amid a spate of films that used immortality as their narrative and thematic backbone in the early ’90s. Robert Zemeckis gave it satirical treatment in his black comedy Death Becomes Her (1992), while Sally Potter used it as a means to explore four centuries of life through the eyes of both sexes in Orlando (1992). Neil Jordan portrayed life immortal as tragic beauty in Interview With the Vampire (1994) and Francis Ford Coppola connected it to undying love in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Of course, immortality is a topic that is dealt with to some extent in just about every vampire movie ever made, which is curiously a genre to which Cronos both belongs and from which it aggressively distinguishes itself.

Del Toro’s arty horror film, which at the time was the second most expensive film to be produced in Mexico (it cost $2 million), suggests in no uncertain terms that eternal life would be a curse. As Del Toro shows, there is a vast difference between existing and living. The film tells the tale of the Cronos Device, an invention created by an alchemist 400 years ago that prolongs life indefinitely. Of course, there is a price to pay, which is exacted on Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), a kindly old antiques dealer who discovers the device hidden in the base of an archangel statue. The device, which looks like a golden Faberge beetle, comes to life in his hand when he winds it up and injects him with a sticky liquid that makes him feel youthful and vibrant. His young granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath), fears the device, but he tells her it is okay. There is nothing to worry about.

Or is there? Although he feels more vibrant, Jesus begins to develop a strange thirst. Soon enough, he learns what this thirst is for. At a New Year’s Eve party, he sees a man with a nosebleed, follows him into the bathroom, and then finds himself on his hands and knees licking blood off the floor. The Cronos Device has made him immortal, but it has turned him into a sort of vampire--not one with sharp fangs and an aversion to garlic and crucifixes, but one that must subsist on human blood in order to continue living.

Following close behind Jesus is Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook), an bitter old industrialist who is trying to stave off death by living in a hermetically sealed apartment that looks like nothing so much as a mausoleum. Ever the remorseless capitalist, his thoughts are only of himself and how he can translate his monetary riches into control over nature, despite the fact that his life has already become a kind of death. Years ago he discovered the alchemist’s diary, and he has been searching for the Cronos Device and its promise of eternal life every since (his bedroom is lined with archangel statues hanging by chains and covered by plastic like corpses). When De la Guardia discovers that Jesus has the device, he lets nothing stand in his way of obtaining it. But, because he is confined to his sterile living quarters, his dirty work has to be executed by his nephew, Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman), a towering, square-jawed bully whose villainy is complicated by the fact that he is a constant victim of his uncle’s sadism and single-minded pursuit of avoiding death’s door.

De la Guardia knows what will happen to him if he uses the device--that there is a price to pay for defeating the natural course of life--but he still desires it obsessively. In his relentless drive to obtain it and live forever, he becomes a symbol for the foibles of mankind, how some are willing to pay the ultimate price if they think they will get the ultimate in return. Having already died spiritually, he has nothing to lose. Jesus, on the the hand, learns the hard way that the chance to live life eternal isn’t worth that price, which turns Cronos into an affecting tragedy. He never wanted nor sought out immortality, but rather stumbled into it. Thus, his unfortunate predicament is a result of the cruel hand of fate, rather than his own doing.

Even if it were not the debut of a then-unknown 29-year-old writer/director, Cronos would still be an impressive film. Shot entirely in Mexico, it was a huge success in its native country, both critically (it won nine Mexican Academy Awards, as well as a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival) and economically (it beat out American competition like The Fugitive, a rarity considering that only 4% of all movies shown in Mexico at that time were made there). Now that Del Toro has emerged as a significant international auteur who successfully straddles the worlds of Hollywood blockbusters and art cinema, we can see Cronos as a crucial feature debut, establishing virtually all of Del Toro’s thematic interests, particularly the role of family and the tragedy of monstrosity. It also established Del Toro’s aesthetic motifs, which were inspired by everything from Disney animation, to the Italian horror films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, to the paintings of Francis Bacon. The film’s unique look--a mixture of the fantastical and the mundane that makes Cronos look significantly more expensive than it was--resulted from the director’s collaboration with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who has since shot all of Del Toro’s films and has also gone on to work with Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Bill Condon.

With its mixture of popcorn horror and sensual artistry, Cronos is both grotesque and beautiful, a sometimes surreal combination that has become the hallmark of Del Toro’s best films, particularly Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), but also his Hollywood forays like Blade II (2002) and the Hellboy films (2004, 2008). Even though this was his feature debut, Del Toro immediately proved to be an able director with a great eye and sense of pacing, as well as the ability to juggle tones ranging from abject horror to tragic drama to dark comedy. The film slips a little toward the end when it bogs down into a predictable action climax on top of a building, with the granddaughter in danger. However, the last few shots bring everything back into perspective, and when the credits begin to roll, we understand why Del Toro sees immortality as a curse none of us should want.

Cronos Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioSpanish/English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • Optional original Spanish-language voice-over introduction
  • Audio commentary by director Guillermo del Toro
  • Audio commentary by producers Arthur H. Gorson and Bertha Navarro and coproducer Alejandro Springall
  • Geometria, an unreleased 1987 short horror film by Del Toro, finished in 2010, with a new video interview with the director
  • “Welcome to Bleak House,” a video tour by Del Toro of his home offices
  • Video interviews with del Toro
  • Video interview with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro
  • Viideo interview with actor Ron Perlman
  • Video interview with actor Federico Luppi
  • Stills gallery
  • Trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic Maitland McDonagh and excerpts from del Toro’s notes for the film
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateDecember 7, 2010

    Supervised by both director Guillermo del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, Criterion’s new high-definition transfer of Cronos, which was taken from the original 35mm camera negative and digitally restored, looked fantastic. As Del Toro discusses on the commentary track, he was very specific in his color schemes, which are beautifully reflected in this transfer. Whites are gleaming, golds and brown hues are rich and natural, and the rare splashes of red (primarily in blood and the granddaughter’s coat) are bright and well saturated. Not surprisingly, Cronos is a perpetually dark film, and the transfer maintains excellent shadow detail while keeping blacks solid and inky. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio two-channel surround soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm LT/RT magnetic soundtrack and also digitally restored, is likewise excellent. The track is clean and sharp, with great sound effects despite the limited spaciousness and directionality of a two-channel mix. The Blu-Ray also offers the audio option of hearing the initial voice-over narration in either Spanish or English.
    In addition to a host of new supplements, Criterion has also ported over most of the supplements that were included on Lionsgate’s 2003 “10th Anniversary Edition” DVD, including two audio commentaries, one by director Guillermo del Toro and one by producers Arthur H. Gorson and Bertha Navarro and coproducer Alejandro Springall. Both are fascinating listens, especially Del Toro’s, as he spends as much time discussing the film’s historical, philosophical, and religious background as does what is actually happening on screen. There is also an extensive stills gallery that includes both personal photographs of Del Toro at work (with captions written by the director himself, many of which self-deprecatingly note his increasing weight gain) and images of all the pages in the alchemist’s diary, which is a particularly wonderful addition to have in high definition since it allows you to inspect all the detail that went into it. Probably the most exciting new inclusion is Geometria, a previously unreleased 1987 short horror film by del Toro, which he finished this year by remixing the soundtrack to his satisfaction. It is a clever and extremely gory horror-comedy with a twist ending, and the director discusses it in a six-minute video interview. Del Toro also appears in another 15-minute video interview and “Welcome to Bleak House,” a personal video tour by Del Toro of his home offices, which serve as both a working space for him and his collaborators and as a museum and library for his extensive (and I mean extensive) personal collection of books, toys, memorabilia, and assorted oddities. He describes it as being like a 19th-century European cabinet of curiosities, and those who are on Del Toro’s wavelength will find it nothing less than enthralling (I for one wished it had lasted much longer, and I found myself constantly pausing the disc to look more closely at everything he has on his shelves). There are also new video interview with Navarro and actor Ron Perlman, as well as a 2002 video interview with actor Federico Luppi. Lastly, there is a trailer and an insert booklet that includes a new essay by film scholar Maitland McDonagh and extensive excerpts from Del Toro’s notes for the film.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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