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From the DVD Shelf: Cronos (1993)

I really enjoyed the two Hellboy movies directed by Guillermo del Toro, and the exquisite Pan’s Labyrinth made me a fan of his for life.  Last year I tracked down his 2001 Spanish-language horror film The Devil’s Backbone, which I really enjoyed (you can read my review here), and I was delighted when, a few months ago, the fine folks at the Criterion Collection released a beautiful new edition of Mr. del Toro’s 1993 debut film, Cronos.

Jesus Gris is an elderly antiques dealer.  One day in his shop with his granddaughter Aurora, he discovers an ancient, scarab-shaped amulet hidden in an old relic.  The amulet turns out to be a powerful device that offers its user the promise of immortality — but at a great cost.  When Jesus inadvertently allows the scarab to prick him, he quickly finds himself drawn into a nightmare in which his humanity seems to rapidly spiral out of his reach.

Cronos is an impressive achievement for a first-time writer and director.  (Mr. del Toro wrote the script in addition to directing the film.)  While it’s clear that many of the ideas and stylistic techniques that Mr. del Toro would hone in his future films are, as yet, unpolished, Cronos is still a very competently made horror film.  There are some genuine scares in the film, and some suitably gross makeup effects.  But Cronos isn’t just a film designed to make you jump or squirm.  As with much of Mr. del Toro’s work, there’s a fascinating, original story that drives the film.  The kindly Jesus’ descent into, well, into events that I won’t spoil for you here, is tragic because of Mr. del Toro’s skill at establishing characters who you really care about.  I’m also continually impressed by the originality of Mr. del Toro’s stories and designs.  The scarab device and the other creatures and effects in the film are all singularly unique creations that aren’t in any way derivative of other films or other stories.  I was totally surprised when, late in the film, it becomes apparent that this story is actually Mr. del Toro’s take on a familiar genre of horror.  But because his approach to that genre was so new and clever, I wasn’t able to predict where the film was going at all.  Even in his first film, it’s clear that Guillermo del Toro possesses an unparalleled imagination, and the skill to bring his unique imaginings to the screen.

As with The Devil’s Backbone, I wasn’t at all bothered by having to watch this Spanish-lamguage film using the subtitles.  The story and imagery are so strong that the subtitles weren’t an impediment at all to my engagement with the film.

There aren’t that many characters in the film, but I’ll note that it was great to see Ron Perlman (who would go on to collaborate with Mr. del Toro several more times, most notably in his inspired casting in the title role of Hellboy) in a supporting role.  It’s a sort of bizarre role, as the whipping-boy nephew of an evil, wealthy man, but Mr. Perlman brings it to life and brings real menace to his scenes (even under a Chinatown-esque band-aid on his nose).  Federico Luppi brings quiet dignity and strength to the lead role of Jesus, and Mr. del Toro again demonstrates his skill with child actors in his work with Tamara Shanath, who plays Aurora.  Having watched The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, in which a child is the main character, when we first met Aurora and Jesus at the beginning of the movie, I expected the film to be Aurora’s story.  In fact, the film definitely belongs to Jesus, but Ms. Shanath does fine work in her supporting role and, as always, I give the director a lot of credit for getting such a solid performance out of his child actor.

Really the film’s only mis-step is the English language prologue which spells out the secrets of the scarab — secrets that would have been better left unrevealed until later in the film.  That the prologue is in English, and put together so awkwardly, leads me to wonder if it wasn’t a late addition to help explain the film to dumb American audiences.  If so, it’s a mistake.  The information on the scarab’s back-story is interesting and certainly helps us understand the story, but I’d like to think that under writer/director hands as skilled as those of Mr. del Toro, this back-story could have been much more naturally incorporated into the story as it unfolded, rather than thrown at us all in a big lump right at the beginning.

Cronos is a somber, sad little film.  It’s not for everyone, but if you’re a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s recent, mainstream work, then I encourage you to check out this lovely Criterion Collection DVD or blu-ray!

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