This is where it all began: Guillermo del Toro’s fascination with the macabre and familial relationships and finding true, resonating empathy in the darkest corners of the horror genre. Cronos is, at the very least, intriguing for the imaginative ways in which it pairs two unlikely horror tropes: vulnerability and monstrosity. An aging antique salesman comes across an ancient, golden artifact and becomes obsessed with its apparent gift of immortality. The device claws at his flesh in the form of a scarab (del Toro’s extreme close-ups in these sequences reveal influence from Canadian auteur David Cronenberg) and Jesús becomes addicted.
Early on del Toro proved with Cronos that if he had never been given the opportunity to make gargantuan studio blockbusters he’d be making thematically sharp B-movies. The genre certainly needs del Toro’s eye for powerful images and color – in one sequence our feeble vampire has his first experience with bloodlust in an all black and white marbled bathroom, and the lone drop of blood on the floor practically glows with life. The following image stands as one of the most powerful in any horror film I’ve seen: the harmless, gentle Jesús lying flat on the white floor, lapping up with spot of blood sensually and with an almost sexual ecstasy.
Indeed, Cronos’ raw visual power is matched only by its surprising thematic cohesiveness. This is what is essentially a lapsed Catholic film, in many ways, as our protagonist is heavy handedly named, “Jesús Gris,” and his slowly emerging vampirism twists Cronos into some twisted version of the Christ story, a perfect vehicle for del Toro’s focus on immortality and youth. After all, is not much of religion often driven by a fear of death and thirst for new, extended life? The villain of the film lives above an archetypal industrial factory with its groaning machines that never die. He himself lives in a sanitized, metallic chamber, with archangels (dozens of them, as he is searching fervently for the one that holds the Cronos device) lining the long hallway in plastic bags as if bodies in a morgue. Everything is focused on immortality (even the villain’s nephew, played by a hilarious Ron Perlman, is seen obsessing over his face and considering plastic surgery to look younger). During the climax of the film a dying character clutches, with blood covered hands, at one of the hanging angels, cannot hold on, and slips and falls to the floor. It is an obvious, yet striking, image.
Del Toro brilliantly subverts the genre with regards to the “monster” as well. The vampire here, rather than an intimidating force of eternal life and power, is a feeble and genial man, rarely a threat to anyone but himself, thrust into his predicament by an accidental encounter with the beetle’s venomous stinger. His journey could just as easily be the viewer’s, something not often explored in a genre as heightened as this one. The seams are showing here when it comes to some of the make-up and extreme sequences. Del Toro simply didn’t have the budget he needed, and as a first-time filmmaker a few of the performances lack some consistency, but these B-movie ticks have always been part of the charm, they just detriment Cronos a bit more because of its uncommon ingenuity and aesthetic power.
The machines in the factory never die, but del Toro frames these sequences in such a way that gives them a look of Gothic architecture and death. The cancer ridden villain has prolonged his life through sterile machinery and desperately taken a blind leap of faith in purchasing the archangels. Gris himself is reduced to nothing but rot. Del Toro’s message here is clearly communicated in ways B-movie horror pictures rarely have – life and living are two very different things.