Cronos (1993/1994) ***Ĺ
People have been making vampire movies for a long, long time. Long enough, you might think, that every imaginable angle on the subject has been exploited to exhaustion, leaving nothing new or even especially interesting for todayís filmmakers to try. The whole Polidori-Stoker thing has surely been played out for decades. Lesbian vampires are maybe even worse off, since the makers of those movies canít seem to think beyond ďCarmillaĒ or the legend of Erzsebet Bathory. Matthesonian vampires got outflanked by Romeroesque zombies before theyíd even properly found their footing, Ricean vampires quickly proved themselves less useful as icons of horror than as fantasy sex objects for goth teenagers, and social-metaphor vampiresó think vampirism as addiction, vampirism as AIDS, vampirism as plutocracy, etc.ó have always been just too damn difficult for most people to get right. Meanwhile, niche-market vampires have proliferated as filmmakers, well aware of the aforementioned difficulties, have sought routes around them. Thereíve been cowboy vampires, redneck vampires, black belt vampires, street punk vampiresó even New York City night shift cabbie vampires! What could possibly be left after all that, right? Thatís the thing about creativity, though. By definition, you never know whatís left until somebody comes along and does it, so even the most depleted of genres can occasionally bring forth something excitingly new. Admittedly, it no longer makes much sense to speak of something new in the context of a movie from 1993, but vampires didnít seem too much less used up back then than they do todayó and Cronos seems as eccentrically fresh today as it did back then. Furthermore, in stark contrast to some other drastically revisionist takes on the subject that I could name, Cronos achieves its uniqueness without redefining vampirism to the point where it ceases to be itself anymore.
Writer/director Guillermo Del Toro (whose debut feature Cronos was) uses a remarkably elegant starting point for his reinterpretation. He leaves the familiar characteristics of vampirism in place, but changes the cause of the condition. Hundreds of years ago, an Italian alchemist by the name of Fulcanelli (Mario Ivan Martinez, of Donít Panic and Deathstalker III: The Warriors from Hell) invented a device that he hoped would make him immortal. Part organic and part mechanical, Fulcanelliís contraption extracts the userís blood, filters it through the digestive system of the parasitic insect imprisoned at its core, and then re-injects it into the userís body in a purified state. The Cronos Device, as Fulcanelli called it, worked so well that he lived until 1937, when he was impaled by debris in an earthquake in Madrid. There were side effects to the alchemistís regimen of immortality treatments, however, which apparently included the periodic need to obtain new blood from human donors untouched by the Cronos Device, and those side effects would have been even more serious and quicker to manifest had Fulcanelli not exactly followed certain complex protocols for the instrumentís use. The Cronos Device was not discovered when the authorities went through Fulcanelliís flat after his death, but the instruction manual for it was sold off along with all the other occult books from the alchemistís library. Eventually, the manual found its way into the hands of ailing tycoon Dieter De La Guardia (Claudio Brook, from Dr. Tarrís Torture Dungeon and Innocents from Hell), who has been searching for the Cronos Device itself ever since.
The reason no one found Fulcanelliís immortality machine back in Ď37 is because he didnít just keep it in his desk drawer or whatever. Rather, the Cronos Device was hidden inside a plaster statue of the Archangel Michael which had been part of the alchemistís home dťcor. That statue, too, has been sold and resold over the ensuing decades, but its current owner is Mexican antique dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi, whom Del Toro would use again in The Devilís Backbone and Panís Labyrinth). It isnít Jesus who finds the magical gizmo concealed inside the angel, though; that honor belongs to his granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath). Naturally, Gris has no idea what heís looking at when Aurora presents him with the deviceó all he can tell is that itís rather like a cross between a Faberge egg and a clockwork scorpionó but heís certain it must be valuable. Winding it up to see what it does is perhaps not the wisest course of action, however. When Gris tries that, the device seizes his hand in its six claw-like legs, and bites him deeply on the palm. His wife, Mercedes (Margarita Isabel), gets him patched up, but the bite still hurts like hell. Itches like hell, too, as it starts to heal. Whatís more, that itching has a psychological component that wonít let Gris rest until he permits the Cronos Device to finish what it started by performing a full extraction-and-replacement cycle on him. When he awakens the next morning, Jesus finds that he looks and feels several years younger.
Gris has a big-spending customer at his shop that day, a certain Angel De La Guardia (Ron Perlman, of Conan the Barbarian and Alien Resurrection). Yes, that would be Dieter De La Guardiaís no-account nephew. Dieter evidently heard some manner of rumor regarding how Fulcanelli kept the Cronos Device hidden in the years since he acquired the manual, and as his health continues to decline, he has Angel running all over creation buying antique plaster archangels for him. Of course, now that heís found the right one, itís too late; Gris has removed the Cronos Device to a cardboard box that he keeps under his bed at home. It must have left some trace of itself behind in the statue, though, because Dieter sends Angel back to the shop after closing time to ransack the place. Gris is sharp enough to put two and two together when he finds a De La Guardia business card on the counter amid the wreckage that Angelís investigations left in their wake. Rightly furious, Jesus storms over to the De La Guardia factory complex that night, and insists upon an audience with the boss. Dieter De La Guardia is happy to oblige. Heís prepared to pay good money for the Cronos Device, and he figures a clear enumeration of the dangers associated with using it ought to convince anyone but the truly desperate to part with it. Dieter didnít expect that the shopkeeper would already have tried it out, though. That rather alters the equationó I mean, how willing would you be to give up access to a youth-restoring machine, especially at Jesusís age? Gris decides that he doesnít care about side effects or instruction manuals, and tells De La Guardia to go fuck himself.
The side effects really are something Gris should care about, though, and apparently he really isnít using the Cronos Device quite correctly. Jesus does keep getting younger, but he also starts to develop cravings, specifically cravings for other peopleís blood. At one point, he finds himself in the junkie-like position of licking the floor of a public menís room after a guy with a bad cocaine nosebleed drips all over it. He finds his sleep schedule getting screwy, too, and develops a sharp sensitivity to bright light. Meanwhile, De La Guardia turns to mafia tactics in his quest for the Cronos Device, but Angel proves to be none too competent an enforcer. While attempting to beat the location of Fulcanelliís machine out of Gris, Angel beats him to death (or close enough to it that he canít tell the difference) instead. After disposing of the body, Angel is, if anything, even further from getting what his uncle wants than he was before laying on the ultra-violence. Also, thereís something that Angel canít be faulted for not knowing, since Dieter never thought to explain it to him. Once a person has been using the Cronos Device for a while, you canít permanently kill them by beating them up or pushing them over a cliff inside a car. Unless you subject the body to certain procedures afterward (most of which would sound decidedly familiar to Abraham Van Helsing), theyíll get right back up again sooner or later. And in the case of Jesus Gris, I think itís fair to predict that heís going to be just a trifle irritated with the De La Guardias when he wakes up in the basement of the local funeral parlor, awaiting his turn in the crematorium.
I always get a little charge out of catching up with the debut features of especially distinctive filmmakers. How much sign will those early movies show of the artistic personalities for which their creators later became famous? Guillermo Del Toro is among the quirkiest directors working today, with an unmistakable set of visual signatures and thematic trademarks. In Cronos, we see that combination of quirks already almost fully formed. The clockwork magic of the Cronos Device resurfaces in Hellboy and its sequel. Insects with peculiar powers recur in Mimic and Panís Labyrinth. The notion of a secret realm of monsters and magic humming along beneath the notice of ordinary people is central to practically everything Del Toro has made to date. And of course thereís that pervasive Del Toro mood of wonder tinged with melancholy, as most humans find that to touch the hidden magic of the world is to be destroyed by itó or at least to lose their humanity.
Cronos is at its most Del Toroid in a subplot about which Iíve thus far said next to nothing. Although the action is all in the contest over the Cronos Device between Gris and the De La Guardias, the heart of the film lies instead in the relationship between Jesus and Aurora. Aurora is the prototype of all the quiet, withdrawn little kids who populate so many of Del Toroís later movies, but the one she reminds me of most is the immigrant bootblackís autistic ward in Mimic. Partly thatís because she literally never speaks, and partly itís because she appears at first glance to be only a peripheral figure here. Aurora is much more important a character than she seems, however, because sheís the thing that keeps Jesus in touch with his humanity even after he technically no longer possesses it. She isnít fazed in the slightest when her grandfather comes home on the night following his funeral, looking (and no doubt smelling) every bit like the animate corpse that he is. The girl is similarly accepting of Granddadís peculiar new lifestyle requirements, cheerfully surrendering her toybox to serve as a makeshift coffin so that he can sleep through the day in safety from the incinerating sunlight. More than anything, it is Auroraís unswerving and unquestioning love that stops Gris from going the way of Fulcanelli as he grows increasingly to resemble a traditional vampire; immortality is nice and all, but not at the cost of viewing that trusting little child as an ambulatory deli tray! The end to which Gris comes is the clearest illustration of Del Toroís integrity as a storyteller. Like many revisionists, he posits that a vampire neednít necessarily be evil, but unlike far too many of them, he recognizes that the vampireís mode of existence inescapably requires them to do evil. Aurora is the means whereby Gris himself figures that out, and her treatment of him as the same person he ever was, even when he so manifestly isnít anymore, gives him the moral strength to act on the realization.