Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro has produced some of the most poetic genre films of the last couple of decades. He has proven himself to be equally adept at smaller, intimate projects and larger, effects-driven fare. Yet, no matter what he’s making, there is always something distinctly personal, distinctly Del Toro-ish, about his work. Admittedly his first film, Cronos, lacks the beauty of his masterful dark fairy-tale Pan’s Labyrinth and the poignancy of his melancholic ghost story The Devil’s Backbone and it is also, far less memorable than both. However, when approached in isolation as an individual achievement, it manages to stand out on its own accord, as a stylish, emotional film with plenty artistic flair and a unique mythology.
The narrative is concerned with a small mechanical contraption, the Cronos device, within which resides a supernatural creature resembling an insect, with the ability to grant its user immortality. In the present day an aging antiques dealer, Jesús Gris, comes into contact with the device, which attaches itself to him with a vice-like grip. Whilst the device imparts to him a new found energy and youthful vitality, it eventually becomes clear that the creature within the mechanism has formed a parasitic bond with Jesús, forcing him to become addicted to it, and to human blood. Other side-effects include an aversion to sunlight and eventual physical decay. To complicate matters further for Jesús, a wealthy, dying businessman sends his brutish, money-hungry nephew (Played by Del Toro’s regular Ron Perlman) to attain the device from him.
This is first and foremost, a decidedly unconventional Vampire tale. There are no erotic undertones here, the majority of our time is spent with a young girl and her grandfather. In place of the usual sexual metaphors a study of the nature of addiction run throughout Cronos. Consequently this may not suit the tastes of those accustomed to the likes of True Blood or Twilight. The pacing is meticulous, the themes complex and the gore scarce.
The debut showcases Del Toro’s skill at presenting graceful, haunting imagery. Typically of Del Toro, the camerawork is unobtrusive and restrained allowing the rich mise-en-scène to do the talking. The film is abundant with lavish design, dreamlike fades and also takes the time to linger on elegant details; like leaves drifting down a spiral staircase amidst warm amber lighting. Del Toro’s trademark attention to visual details also extends to the film’s horror element. The creature design (Consistently one of the director’s strongest areas, from Pan’s Labyrinths’ “Pale Man” to Pacific Rim’s various Kaiju) is wonderfully gruesome, especially when the film wanders into body-horror territory in its 2nd act.
Whilst the subject matter may be similar, this is a very different animal to the film-maker’s other vampire piece, Blade II. In Cronos the monsters are not video-game-esque superhumans but pathetic, pitiable creatures. Yet whilst Del Toro’s narrative skill is present here, it is clear that he has yet to find his strength with characters. None of Cronos’ characters are as compelling or dynamic as the tragic souls we encounter in The Devil’s Backbone, or as memorable as those we find in the Hellboy films. As it stands, Cronos’ cast have far less to work with. Aurora (Jesús‘ granddaughter) is not quite as captivating as Ophelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, she’s given very little personality of her own and functions more like a general symbol for innocence and childhood. Likewise the film’s villain is far less menacing and enthralling than Pan’s Captain Vidal. Only Ron Perlman’s Angel emerges as a distinct personality, actually standing out as one the director/writer’s greatest (human) creations.
Tonally, Cronos sits in the middle of Del Toro’s filmography. Whilst it is more serious than his work for Hollywood, it is noticeably more playful than his other native efforts. The narrative is less seeped in tragedy than Pan’s Labyrinth (with it’s civil war setting) or The Devil’s Backbone (with it’s themes of torment, anguish, and pain), as a result Del Toro is able to explore a more humorous side than he often does, and at the same time a darker side than Hollywood would ever allow for his blockbuster productions. This dark comedy brilliantly manifests itself throughout the film on numerous occasions. Sometimes it is quirky and fun. Other times it is downright twisted and disturbing: a scene in which Jesus attempts to lick a spot of blood off of the floor in a public bathroom without being detected springs to mind.
There are however, still some niggling problems with Cronos, the biggest being that whilst it exhibits the creativity of it’s film-maker, compromise is evident. The film’s budgetary constraints are apparent especially towards the last act. Whilst sometimes a want of funds can necessitate innovation on the director’s part, it seems that Del Toro was instead restricted by the lack of resources at his disposal. Later films allowed for an expanded tool box to help realize his ambition, without prompting a loss of his creativity and artistry. Hellboy 2 for instance, sees Del Toro with seemingly boundless freedom to explore his imagination without studio interference. Here however it’s clear that he was hindered, working with a 2 million dollar budget. The climactic skirmish between protagonist and antagonist atop a rooftop is a tedious, uninspired conclusion to an interesting conflict, suggesting that it was perhaps the director’s affordable fallback option.
Despite the issues towards the end of the film, the final few minutes are genuinely powerful, forecasting the bright future of Del Toro’s career. The film’s coda in which Jesús’ arc comes to an end is eerie, moving and profound, more so than the rest of the film that proceeded it, working almost like a preview of things to come. In fact, throughout Cronos there is a constant impression of the developing auteur’s greatness trying to break through. The film may pale slightly in comparison to the director’s best work, however there is no shortage of ideas, originality or style on display. Nevertheless Cronos works best, as a kind of foundation, which Del Toro’s superior work will later build upon.
Cronos (1993), directed by Guillermo Del Toro, is released on DVD in the UK by Optimum Home Entertainment, Certificate 18.