The ticking of multiple clocks overlapping with a series of loud gongs introduces Guillermo del Toro's debut feature Cronos as a forceful mechanism with a built-in timer for sudden bursts of disintegration. Layers of sound resonate over black, giving the yellow credits an eerily present yet menacing feel. The audible dynamism gives way to a familiar dose of historical reflection, with an omniscient voiceover telling of a famous 16th-century Spanish watchmaker/alchemist who dreamt of creating a device that could spring eternal life. After the man is found dead with a stake through his heart among a random building collapse hundreds of years later, it appears he succeeded as a vampire. With this prologue, del Toro introduces the transcendence of manmade supernatural desires, positioning the consequences of abusing myth and legend in a modern-day setting. The tension between history, science, and religion becomes increasingly palpable throughout Cronos, forging ideas concerning mortality and erosion that will evolve in his later films like the Hellboy series and Pan's Labyrinth.
Cronos's pumping heart is not a literal monster, but a functioning apparatus that creates monstrosity. Developed by the aforementioned alchemist and lost to the sands of time, the “cronos device” is a gold-plated scarab housing a series of mechanisms and a mysterious insect that feeds off blood, transmitting its immortality to the human host. Present-day antiques dealer Mr. Gris (Federico Luppi) and his granddaughter, Grace (Tamara Shanath), happen upon the cronos inside an aged statue after a strange customer pays the object too much attention. While they curiously prod it with a mixture of anticipation and bewilderment, the device latches onto Gris's hand, penetrating him with its stingers and beginning a devastating symbiotic process of vampirism. As Gris seemingly grows younger, Grace silently watches her patriarch become more erratic, emboldened, and gregarious. Del Toro shifts from Gris's evocative perspective back to the silent Grace, realizing the combination of fear and excitement surrounding this evolution.
The cronos also represents a chance at survival for a brutal corporate tycoon named De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), a driven man who has been searching four decades for the device. Slowly being eaten away by cancer, De la Guardia abuses and uses his giant nephew, Angel (Ron Perlman), as a violent proxy to obtain the device from Gris. Cronos quickly becomes a give-and-take-style narrative, with Angel doing his uncle's dirty work and Gris becoming more and more physically attached to the power of the cronos. This repetition becomes a problem during the film's drawn out middle act, and staging of “plot” has never been del Toro's strong suit. When Cronos depends on narrative twists to push the story, the film undermines its originality as a tonally diverse horror film. By the final showdown between Gris and Angel, life and death has been shifted so many times that they've merged together as one experience, and the young Grace has watched the entire process churn into a mythological mess.
Despite its clumsy plot development, Cronos represents a filmmaker joyously conducting a symphony of tones interlocking with cinematic details, dissecting core thematic obsessions with through the use of everyday elements. Gris's flowering of youth is anchored by a series of destructive necessities, namely a thirst for blood that begins with a hypnotic shot of a tray of raw meat and culminates in the film's best scene, a stunning example of absurdity and horror that includes a New Year's Eve party, a flowing nose bleed, and licking coagulated blood from a bathroom floor. It turns out horror surrounds almost every realistic moment. Catholic references also abound, and at a key juncture early in the film, Gris stares at the Cronos and asks, “Who are you, little one? A God?,” merging the scientific prowess of the mechanism with the religious undertones of its power. Another great example of del Toro's desire to connect these two institutions comes in a conversation between Gris and De la Guardia, during which they discuss the overlap of insects and the Bible. “Jesus walked on water, like a mosquito,” De la Guardia muses, looking at Gris with the convinced eyes of a true believer. For both men, the burden of everlasting life turns out to be a brutally religious experience.
Cronos might not be a great debut, but it certainly holds an interesting candle to some very worn-out genre conventions. The overt references to Dracula (the final shot of a white-skinned Gris is a stunner), the cutaways inside the cronos to the throbbing bug operator, and Perelman's deliriously wacky performance all stand out as fascinating tangents in a film constantly looking for solid narrative ground. Del Toro is at his best when gleaning the most complex moments from one genre universe and smashing them into another (The Devil's Backbone is still his greatest achievement for this reason). But those cinematic concerns are there from the very beginning of his career, and Cronos acts as a fascinating introductory course on del Toro the humanist, someone wholly concerned with juxtaposing symbols of innocence (children, fairy tales) with the horrors of the adult world (war, greed), all while finding the dark comedy underneath the madness.
The Criterion Collection has given the Blu-ray disc of Cronos a nicely rendered high-definition digital transfer that illuminates the film's extensive color palette (the gold of the cronos, the red of Grace's raincoat). While the entire film has a soft look, especially in the wide-angle shots during the day, the clarity of the close-ups beautifully display Guillermo del Toro's specific attention to religious and scientific artifacts. Faces and skin tones are nicely detailed and balanced for most of the film, but sometimes blur into the shadows of the darker scenes, like when Grace stands on top of the stairs looking down at Gris becoming consumed by the cronos for the first time. The real star of this edition is Criterion's 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack, which highlights the film's meticulous layering of ticking clocks, shifting levers, slicing stingers, and oozing blood. All of these audio elements become functions of the filmmaker's obsession with revolving doors of fate, circumstance, and consequence.
Cronos houses a plethora of treats for genre fans, first and foremost a superb audio commentary by Guillermo del Toro, during which the famously eloquent director discusses his lifelong study of vampires, alchemy, contradictions in religion, and the advantages and sacrifices of low-budget filmmaking. Producers Arhtur H. Gorson and Bertha Navarro and co-producer Alejandro Springail also provide a fascinating dissection of the production difficulties from a business perspective on the disc's other audio commentary. Geometria, a hilariously ridiculous and violent short film from 1987, brilliantly represents del Toro's blossoming love for Italian horror and dark comedy. "Welcome to Bleak House" is a mind-bogglingly cool short video tour by del Toro of his "cabinet of curiosities," a labyrinth homebase of books, paintings, toys, models, photographs, and much more. Also included are short but revelatory interviews with key cast and crew, including Ron Perlman and del Toro, a stills gallery, and a theatrical trailer. Lastly, the Criterion programmers have complimented the disc with a hauntingly designed booklet featuring a stellar essay on Cronos and the del Toro canon by film critic Maitland McDonough accompanied by the director's written notes on the film.
Guillermo del Toro says, "Cronos is an exploded view of my brain," and the resulting auteurist splatter both fascinates from a thematic standpoint and frustrates from a narrative one.