Saturday, October 13, 2012

Overlooked Gems #44: Cronos

Grade: 85 (A-)

If I had to stake the future of the horror genre on one filmmaker, it would be Guillermo Del Toro. The Mexican director’s work has shown an overwhelming love and understanding for fantasy, science fiction, and especially horror, and through works as diverse as his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, his underrated ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, and his spectacular Hellboy movies, he has staked out a claim as the genre’s most vibrant and fascinating director. Del Toro’s first film, Cronos, wasn’t a huge hit in its day, but the film is slowly building a cult following as the exciting first step of a master filmmaker.

Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) owns an antique store in Vera Cruz, where he lives with his wife Mercedes (Margarita Isabel) and granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath). Gris and Aurora find an ancient golden device in one of the statues at the store. Called the Cronos, the device in the invention of a 16th century alchemist who used it as a way to prolong life. The device drinks Gris’ blood and gives him new youth, but at a price: he requires blood to stay youthful, more each time he uses the Cronos. To complicate matters, rich, dying businessman Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) and his vicious, put-upon nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) seek the device, and they’re willing to go to horrifying lengths to get it.

The whole cast is rather good, particularly Luppi and Perlman, but this is largely Del Toro’s show, and with reason. Cronos is one of the most ingenious re-imaginings of the vampire myth likely since George Romero’s Martin- the monsters aren’t literal creatures of the night, but men willing to push themselves to extraordinary lengths in order to prolong their lives. The film operates on a fantastical conceit- a magic device with an insect inside that sucks your blood- but Del Toro ground the film in reality enough that we never question it. Del Toro crafts a number of frightening sequences- the first draining among them- and the film is just as reminiscent of the body-horror of David Cronenberg or of Frankenstein and other early horror films as Dracula (especially as a story of men trying to escape death).

The film also establishes a number of thematic interests that Del Toro would return to- the love of outcasts (Gris as an early warning for Blade, Hellboy, Ofelia of Pan’s Labyrinth), the mix of fantasy and reality, and the allure of power and eternal life. But the film is at its most powerful in its tale of self-sacrifice, the emotional crux of all of Del Toro’s finest films. Cronos feels a bit like an early warning for greater works like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone at times, but it’s hard to complain too much in the viewing.

This film is a Criterion title and is available on Hulu Plus.

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