Criterion // 1993 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // December 17th, 2010
During an interview in the special features of this disc, Cronos director Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy) says that the two most important films in a filmmaker's career are the first and the last. The last, clearly, because it's our final impression of their work, but the first because it lays the director's entire mind on the table for all to see. Whether that's true for everyone is debatable, but Del Toro certainly shows self-awareness with that statement. His debut feature is an imperfect film, but a hugely creative one. This is dark Gothic fantasy at its best and, though it didn't see much success in the U.S. on its initial release, it is a fine film that sets the groundwork for themes he would develop further in films that would make him one of the most renown directors in international film.
Antique dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi, Men with Guns) has more than he knows in an old archangel statue he features on his shelf. Roaches start pouring out of the broken eye of the statue while Gris is sitting in his shop with Aurora (Tamara Shanath), his young granddaughter. Upon further inspection, Gris discovers a hollow base and buried deep inside sits a golden scarab. The scarab is an alchemical relic built centuries ago called the Cronos Device. When he turns the dial on top, legs emerge and it strikes, latching onto Gris with a violent, bloody grip. Suddenly, the old man feels young, but he's thirsty and raw meat looks really delicious. Now that he has the scarab, he'll stop at nothing to keep it, but he's not the only one who desires its power. The decrepit De la Guardia (Claudio Brook, Simon of the Desert) has coveted the object for half a century, believing it to be the secret to eternal life. He has his roughneck nephew, Angel (Ron Perlman, The City of Lost Children), hunting it down with orders to acquire it at all costs.
Cronos sets alight the part of my heart that is still sixteen years old. It's slimy and grotesque, but beautiful without being pretty. Really, all of Guillermo Del Toro's dark fantasies have many of the same characteristics, but Cronos is more special to me in many ways because it is rougher than his later work. At times, it feels very much like a B-movie; lines sound forced and parts of the story are very clunky. The heart, focus, and attention to detail overcome any of the measly problems with the film.
Cronos shines with a spirit that few had seen at the time. While nearly unrecognized outside of cable television in this country, Del Toro had awards virtually thrown at him in his native Mexico, a nation rich with tradition in the fantastic. The vampiric themes that marginalize it as a genre film north of the border are better accepted down south and abroad. Cronos can only tangentially be called horror; Del Toro instead uses our common notions about vampires to tell a larger story about death and family that is often quite sweet.
The heart of the film comes out in the relationship that Jesus Gris has with his nearly silent granddaughter. Aurora is very young, but smart and mature. As the scarab transforms Gris, she shows an otherworldly level of compassion. As she quietly prepares her toy box to serve as a bed for her vampire grampa, she doesn't cry over what has happened to him or that her own life has been put at risk because people covet the object. She simply accepts it and deals with it how she has to, which sometimes means violence. Though his vampirism manifests itself physically, the condition represents a moral quandary of his bodily desires over his humanity. Aurora is his constant reminder of what he must do.
Del Toro shows remarkable aptitude in his first feature effort. He's helped along by a great cast of international talent and a cinematographer in Guillermo Navarro, a fixture of future Del Toro films and other gorgeously shot films like Spy Kids and Jackie Brown, but the vision is all Del Toro. He is obsessed with the separation of light and dark, both in optics and in plotting. Each comes through clearly in Cronos, making for an absolute visual treat and a tantalizingly gruesome fairy tale in the Grimm tradition. In building a Volkswagen Bug-sized network of gears to show the inner clockwork of the Cronos Device (one of my all time favorite practical effects), the director shows a true love for the fantastic. This movie was made for somebody just like me.
Criterion's Blu-ray release of Cronos doesn't provide much material that we haven't seen before in previous editions of the film, but the technical details are superb. The 1080p image is rich and full, as close to reference quality as we're likely to get. The new HD transfer, supervised by the director and cinematographer Navarro, is a crisp and brilliant piece of work. The stark light and dark contrasts in the film are perfectly balanced while featuring bright colors and impressive detail. It's a huge upgrade over its previous incarnation. The sound is not the upgrade that the transfer is; there's only so much that a stereo mix can do. I prefer it to a surround mix that was never intended, but it is nothing incredible. For what it's worth, though, the effort is just fine. The dialog is completely clear and the tango laced score by Javier Álvarez sounds great. It's better than the previous sound mixes, but not by all that much.
The supplemental features are almost entirely recycled, but they are still valuable. The first original extra is a 1987 short film from Del Toro, Geometria, an insubstantial but funny tribute to the Italian horror directors he grew up loving. Del Toro cleaned it up, redubbed it, and made it nice and shiny for the release. Next, we get a look at his studio, the so-called "Bleak House," a menagerie of the strange collections he has built over the years. He promises more installments of the feature, so maybe that slates some of the director's other films for Criterion releases. The booklet is one of the cooler supplements. We get the standard essay that Criterion always includes, but we also get a set of director's notes from the preproduction of the film that really gets into great detail about back stories and overall themes for each individual character; it's very interesting to see how thought out the film was, especially from such a young man. New interviews with the director, producer Bertha Navarro, and Ron Perlman close out the new stuff.
The reused extras start with two audio commentaries. The first, with Del Toro by himself, is the more interesting of the two. It was recorded in 2003, so doesn't contain any information about his more recent successes, but he does speak on his entire career while focusing on the influence Cronos has had on his films. The second commentary, also recorded in the first half of the decade, features producers Arthur J. Gorson and Bertha Navarro and coproducer Alejandro Springall. There is a lot of good information here, but it's in English and Spanish, switching back and forth like the three have been recorded separately, and there are far too many lulls in the discussion to make it anything but a bore. An old interview with Federico Luppi and a still gallery round out the disc.
Cronos, The Devil's Backbone, and Pan's Labyrinth make for a very neat unofficial trilogy of dark trips into fantastic realms. These are all hardcore fairy tales with horrid monsters, children constantly at risk, and striking moral dichotomies. Guillermo Del Toro's first may not be as clearly focused as the later work, but it will always be my favorite. This is a beautifully grotesque film that has never looked better than it does here on Criterion's Blu-ray.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Spanish)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Short Film