Back in the early 90s, before Pan’s Labyrinth wowed audiences worldwide and the likes of cult comic heroes Blade and Hellboy were brought to the big screen, Guillermo del Toro was busy cutting his teeth on Cronos, the better of his two vampire films. Having only directed a few episodes of Hora Marcada – a Spanish version of The Twilight Zone – and some horror shorts of his own, his first feature-length film is a surprisingly good riff on a classic mythos, with quirky characters and a fantastical storyline, moving beyond the at-the-time (and now) glamorization of vampires.
After a fairy tale voiceover, spinning a yarn about a 16th century alchemist who built a golden bug-like mechanism that offers immortality to its user, we fast-forward four centuries to meet Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), an antique dealer who just purchased an archangel statue that happens to house the strange device inside. After discovering it with his granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath), it comes to life and pricks his hand, giving him a youthful appearance almost instantly. Like a drug addict, he soon begins using on a daily basis, moving it closer and closer to his heart. He develops an urge to ingest blood suddenly, which disgusts him at first, but he quickly succumbs to cravings. Jesus soon learns that he is not the only one aware of the device’s existence, and is summoned by an ill Mexican industrialist, De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), who has been searching for it for years with the help of his nephew Angel (Ron Perlman), who is hanging around just to collect his inheritance.
Like Cemetery Man, Cronos is made up of several genres and moves in many different directions at once. While the idea of vampires has been around for centuries, the film takes a familiar story and evolves it into a character study of sorts. While Jesus’ dependence on the Cronos device and his bodily transformation is the most interesting thing in the film surface-wise (Videodrome immediately comes to mind), the real story is the relationship between him and his granddaughter. The Cronos is, like drugs, somewhat of a distraction from the bond he shares with his granddaughter. The gothic charm of the film transforms the story into a fairy tale, and while all the actors give great performances, Ron Perlman is the stand-out, chewing the scenery and spewing out sarcasm left and right – it’s no wonder he went on to make Hellboy with del Toro a decade later, the whole film is practically an audition tape for smarmy charm.
Criterion’s MPEG-4 1080p encode is, as usual, stellar; in fact, I doubt the film will ever look better than it does in the visual presentation provided here. Lionsgate’s standard definition release a few years back was riddled with edge-enhancement and other smaller issues and, luckily, Criterion has fixed all of the problems under the supervision of del Toro himself. The picture is clear and crisp, with detail and color levels that have been immensely improved upon. The film is not as beautiful looking as cinematographer Guillermo Navarro’s work on Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s a very raw and organic looking film, and keeping that in mind, it’s aesthetic captures the workings of a young auteur’s mind. The DTS-HD Spanish master track is presented in 2.0, and is on-par with the older standard definition release. The lossless audio is without any major problems, and the balance between score and dialogue is perfect, but the lack of an upgraded 5.1 track is disappointing. This could be because it was impossible due to the original audio element’s limitations (which DOES happen from time to time), but what is provided is certainly good, even if it’s not a track I would necessarily crank up. The extras included are somewhat sparse when compared with other Criterion releases, but they’re informative nonetheless. Also included is a 40-page booklet, featuring an essay by Maitland McDonagh (Beautiful Dark Things) and excerpts from del Toro’s director’s notebook.
Cronos is an introductory trip into del Toro’s mind, and a template for the more fantastic films that followed. It’s a fantasy film that shares the same approach as Grimms’ fairy tales – dark, and often times disturbing with adult themes – and has little with common with the typical Saturday morning cartoon and Disney fare, aside from being a parable of sorts. Like most acclaimed director’s first films, you can tell that budget restraints and naivety kept it from being a true masterpiece, but it shows the artistic merit and scope that would inevitably be used to create a more uncompromised vision later on.
Commentary – Included are two archival tracks from 2002, one featuring the director, and the other with producers Arthur H. Gorson and Bertha Navarro, as well as co-producer Alejandro Springall. Del Toro’s track is easily the strongest of the two, and his passion for the film is unremarkable even after all these years. Most of the track focuses on the symbolism of the film (Catholicism, a child’s perception, the human soul, and even a bit of capitalism), but he also dishes out the expected amount of geek knowledge his tracks usually contain. The producers’ track is a bit more technical, and includes their take on the challenges of working with the then-new director, getting together the funding, casting, their experiences at Cannes, and the awards and reputation the film has received.
Geometria (13:20) – del Toro’s 1987 short is an adaptation of a Frederic Brown story `Zero In Geometry,’ in which a failing student performs a ritual so that he can pass his test and bring his dead father back from the grave. It has that pink/blue/purple color palate that inhibits classic Italian horror films like Suspiria and Inferno, along with a synth soundtrack from the same era. It’s a bit campy, instantly bringing the `Father’s Day’ segment of Creepshow to mind, but certainly demonstrates the fantastical elements that make up del Toro’s other works. A brief interview follows, in which the director talks about the short and how Criterion gave him the opportunity to remix and alter it to his liking, which includes completing the score and dubbing the voices in Italian.
Welcome To Bleak House (10:14) – After his wife scolded him for bringing weird stuff into their house and exposing his young daughters to it, del Toro built a house just for his collectibles, paintings, and books, as well as using it as a quiet place to concentrate on pre-production for his film. It’s filled with everything from Disney paraphernalia to 19th century books on the occult. Although it’s apparent from his films that he’s into many of the subjects his collectibles suggest, some of the art work and film props are amazing to see. If anything, you’ll envy his ability to get a special feature about how much of a geeky hoarder he is.
Interviews (43:02) – A collection of four interviews, featuring Guillermo del Toro, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, and actors Ron Perlman and Federico Luppi. All seem to be shot in the last year or so, except for Luppi’s, which looks archival. All those involved discuss the making-of the film, their thoughts on it years later, and how it fits into their filmographies. All of them are interesting, except for Luppi’s, which is very brief, and there isn’t as much reflection in it.