Beauty is often a requisite in vampire films: Set in gothic castles in Eastern Europe, flowing capes and beautiful brides, the blood-drenched sets usually intricately designed, each drop meant to be awed as much as feared. While no less beautiful, Guillermo Del Toro’s “Cronos” brings the Gothicism and high drama of the Dracula myth and carefully imposes it as an allegory of the overlap of addiction and religion on a kindly old man cursed/blessed with eternal life.

Yet don’t get me wrong, this is the most original, entertaining vampire flick in decades, calling to mind everything from Bella Lugosi to the height of Hammer to Italian master Mario Bava. This is a must for anyone who believes horror movies can be more than post-“Matrix” schlock or over-intricate role-playing-fantasy-lore (not that there’s anything wrong with that). “Cronos” is compelling horror because it has the same visceral kick as a David Cronenberg film without any excess or un-earned gore.

An over-abundance of gore can create such lunatic fun that it works on almost every level, such as “Dead Alive” or “Evil Dead.” In many cases, though, excessive blood can take you out of the moment, pull even the staunchest gore-hound away from the story. Del Toro asks us to suffer with his characters, to feel what he calls the “micro-violence” of a metal stinger entering a palm, or the (literally and figuratively) unscratchable itch of addiction. That most of us have never been addicted to blood doesn’t matter, we feel the pain, the thirst, the deep-rooted lust of destructive desire.

Del Toro, who has since made “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Blade II” and the upcoming “Hellboy,” began his career with the story of Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) an elderly Mexican antique-shop proprietor who lives a physically-loveless marriage with his wife and cares tenderly for his young mute granddaughter. At the prompting of an odd customer, Gris discovers the Cronos device hidden inside of an arch-angel statue. From the brief prologue, we learn the device was forged by an alchemist to give him eternal life, but had a few unwanted vampiric side effects. The device springs to life by itself, making Jesus appear younger and more virile, while at the same time making him an instant addict.

While Gris deals with his new life, he must confront an aging factory owner who refuses to set foot outside of his eerie, sterile, highly-secured living environment. The old man (Claudio Brook, “The Devil’s Rain,” and many much better movies) sends out his hulking, bumbling nephew (genre favorite Ron Perlman, who plays the lead in “Hellboy”) to retrieve the device and do away with Gris.

While it retains an old-time feel and careful construction of a classic Universal shocker, and the vibrant colors and complex emotions of a Hammer bloodbath, Cronos is unique in both imagery and storytelling. It’s funny and sad and quite scary, bloody yet touching, making you cringe more from emotion than visceral imagery (except on the occasion needle-close-up, man do I hate needles). This is the sort of horror movie you show your friends who believe the beloved genre is nothing more than steel claws and chainsaws (not that there’s anything wrong with that *).

The DVD: The centerpiece of Lions Gate’s 10th Anniversary “Cronos” disc is Del Toro’s English-language commentary track. He barely pauses for breath as he speaks of his influences in color and for certain shots, on his desire to make the film a poignant Catholic allegory, and how he sold his car to film the shots inside the Cronos device. His excitement over the film is tempered by his perfectionism, and he laments that monetary concerns prevented certain shots and scenes from coming out exactly as he envisioned them. He also tells wonderful stories about his cast, from the actual clairvoyance of a young co-star to the scene where Perlman actually punched Luppi, one of the most respected actor’s in Mexico, right in the face. A second commentary, by the producers, is both in English and Spanish. It is more sparse than Del Toro’s, and discusses more of the technical aspects. Not as interesting or entertaining, but for die-hard, bilingual fans (or at least ones who don’t mind reading commentary tracks), it’s a nice touch.

The very short making of is nothing special, but is made up for by a feature called “Directors Perspective,” in which Del Toro discusses the film and his life, and clips from some childhood shorts are shown. The shorts themselves, including one where Del Toro’s own mother plays a giant fetus, would have been a great bonus, but didn’t make it onto the DVD. Lions Gate does a fantastic job on sound and transfer, giving the low-budget film a nice Hollywood presentation, and allowing the wonderful use of color to have its full effect.

My only other complaint would be the subtitles, though it’s not a major one. The film is bilingual, both in English and Spanish, yet the only subtitles available repeat everything, in either language. It can be distracting to have Perlman giving dialogue in English, and the same words crawling at the bottom of the screen. Eh, maybe this is just an incentive to brush up on my high school Spanish.

Official Score