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Cronos

Cronos(1993)

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The feature debut of Mexican director and budding genre master Guillermo del Toro is an alchemic twist on vampire lore and the price of eternal life. Federico Luppi stars as Jesus, a curio shop owner who stumbles upon a clockwork device created by a 16th Century alchemist, who (as we learn in the prologue) used the queasy mix of insect-like mechanics and organic organs to extend his life for centuries. After a hulking American hoodlum named Angel (Ron Perlman) comes searching for the device in his shop, the old man inadvertently engages the device and watches in horror as claw-like spikes unfold and drives themselves into his skin. He also emerges from the experience energized, refreshed, as if this thing gave him back his youth. He's hooked and only later learns the price of his youth: an insatiable craving for blood, a physical transformation, a whole new meaning to the idea of sun burn. Meanwhile Angel, the nephew of a dying gangster who believes the device can save his life, returns to take the mechanism from the old man...

Made in 1993, Cronos was a fresh approach to the vampire film created just as the Anne Rice books was reviving the moribund genre and long before the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series made vampires hip and the "Twilight" novels spread them through popular youth culture. As in Near Dark (1987), another reinvention of the genre (this one in a southwestern flavor), the word vampire is never uttered and though parts of the familiar lore arise, there is no one to rattle off the explanations of the transformation. He has to stumble across these as new experiences and learn on the way, with the support of his adoring young granddaughter, Aurora, who is wary of his addiction to the device but stands by him unconditionally. Just as Angel becomes his devil, Aurora is his angel: innocent, sweet, always dressed in white and always protective of the old man who will do anything to guard her from evil. It's part melodrama, part morality play and part thriller, more Dorian Gray as Bram Stoker and infused with a heady alchemic brew of ancient science, supernatural shadows, mutant organisms, demented villains driven by a greed for youth and one man's struggle for his soul. Yet it is the emotional connection between Jesus, tempted by this fountain of youth, and his granddaughter Aurora, devoted in the face of all mystery and dark magic, that grounds the story.

Guillermo del Toro wrote the script as a young man and spent years in the industry, as a TV director and a special effects artist, working to get his chance to direct it. The wait surely contributed to the richness of the film. While the narrative itself is fairly direct, the details are rich, clever and darkly witty (his sudden revival in a funeral home, moments away from cremation, is a hilarious sequence of silent comedy in a surreal situation capped by one of the funniest sight gags you'll ever see in a horror movie). It also was his first collaboration with director of photography Guillermo Nararro, who went on to win the Academy Award for shooting del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, and actor Ron Perlman, who took a chance on the first time director and was rewarded years later with the title role in del Toro's two Hellboy films. Their contributions are essential to the success of the film. While del Toro certainly improved as a director with time, Cronos is a marvelous debut: cool, creepy and surprising, tempered with a clever gallows humor and anchored by a passion for life and love.

It's been previously available on DVD, but of course Criterion remasters it from scratch for both DVD and the Blu-ray debut. The film was shot at a relatively low budget but it is richly detailed and the new edition is well mastered. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro uses a filter in many scenes, to give it a diffuse look and a muted palette, and the digital master preserves that quality while still bring out the detail. The Criterion release includes the two commentary tracks from the 2003 DVD release--one by director Guillermo Del Toro (in English) and one by producers Alejandro Springal, Bertha Navarro (in Spanish with optional English subtitles) and Arthur H. Gorson (in English)--and the 5 minute archival interview featurette "Making Cronos With Federico Luppi" (in Spanish with English subtitles) illustrated with behind the scenes footage and film clips. And it adds original supplements to the mix. In a new interview with the passionate and articulate Guillermo del Toro, who is frank about what he thinks didn't work in the film (and how he learned from it), he describes his feature debut as his only true "lapsed Catholic movie." With names like Jesus (as the resurrected man) and Angel (as a kind of devil), it's not hard to see. There are also new interviews (circa 2009) with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and star Ron Perlman and the original featurette Welcome to Bleak House, a ten-minute video tour guided tour through del Toro's home, his way of introducing us to his influences and the closest thing to letting us into his mind, he explains.

Finally there is Geometria, a six-minute horror short that del Toro made in 1987 but was unable to complete to his satisfaction. The comic horror, based on a short story by Fredric Brown, is del Toro's tribute to the work of Italian inspirations Mario Bava and Dario Argento, is a simple little piece with a caricature of a middle class family in world of Bava-esque blue and red lights and a parody of The Exorcist summoned by a mathematically-challenged student. Shot on a student budget and rushed to make a film festival deadline, del Toro was unable to complete the soundtrack to his satisfaction and explains in an accompanying interview how he took the opportunity of this release to revise the film with a new soundtrack (appropriately in the eighties electronic mode) and Italian language dub (with voices comically distorted for effect). While very much a student production, it is a funny, clever and entertaining lark driven by creativity, ambition and the first signs of the craft that del Toro would perfect throughout his career.

The disc is accompanied by a booklet with an essay by Maitland McDonough (herself an expert on Italian horror) and excerpts from Guillermo del Toro's own notes, which includes characters biographies and essays. The original artwork for the Criterion packaging and booklet are by comic book writer/artist and graphic designer Mike Mignola, the creator of the "Hellboy" series that del Toro brought to the screen in two imaginative films, and his stripped down, woodcut-like style gives it an appropriately spooky and ancient quality the whole package.

For more information about Cronos, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Cronos, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker