Cronos October 24, 2019
Guillermo Del Toro
1 Hr., 32 Mins.
he Cronos device was made in the 16th century by a clever alchemist named Veracruz. It’s a gold, Faberge-egg-looking thing, with a shiny, bronze, twistable pyramid-shaped knob at the top. If you turn it, a sluggish creature who lives inside of it knows instantly knows what to do. What exactly the creature and the device can do in Guillermo Del Toro’s directorial debut, Cronos (1993), are left ambiguous for a time. But we
think we have a good enough idea of how they work together when, in the Veracruz-starring prologue of the film, a building collapses, and Veracruz is inside of it, alive and, impossibly, hundreds of years old. It seems likely that the Cronos, and the slimy thing inside it, might know a thing or two about immortality, or something like it.
Early on in the movie, the device falls into the possession of an antique-shop owner. He’s an elderly, religious man named Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi). He's the sole guardian of his granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath), who rarely speaks and follows him around like a kitten. Jesús is tired, aware his days are numbered. When the Cronos device is brought to his shop — inside an archangel statue with a missing eye that has a belly full of cockroaches — he’s given a new purpose.
He’s first obsessed with figuring out what it does, exactly. Is it a trinket, or something more special? Then he becomes further intrigued when he accidentally discovers its mechanical intentions. One afternoon, Jesús spins the little pyramid on the device’s core. Metallic, insect-like legs shoot out of it, push downward into his skin, and seemingly inject a stinger into him. The next day, Jesús's crow’s feet and frown lines look airbrushed, almost. Moisture and a tanned glint have returned to his skin. His hair has filled out. His teeth are suddenly pearly. Jesús shaves off his mustache, solidifying the existence of this new him. Whatever the Cronos device is doing, he’d like it to keep doing it. Worryingly, though, Jesús develops an appetite for blood in the meantime.
Cronos, when not dwelling on the horrors and then highs of respectively frightening and exhilarating physical change, involves itself in a more sinister plot. It concerns a dying, Cronos-obsessed businessman, Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook), who will stop at nothing to entice Jesús to hand over the device. (This usually entails that de la Guardia send his sadistic nephew, portrayed by Ron Perlman, to inflict violence on an apparent enemy whenever necessary.)
The movie eventually puts more of its attention on this subplot, and that’s when our interest depletes. The film effectively functions, early on, as an allegory for aging, and all the anxieties — whether related to family or to physical depletion — which follow suit. Cronos, akin to forebears like the macabre 1945 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray or the springy black comedy Death Becomes Her (1992), is most affecting during first-act scenes orbiting around its protagonist’s unease over getting older, and the brief too-good-to-be-trueness that comes when they learn there might be a loophole. Horror is most articulated, then, during and after the unavoidable epiphany. Messing with nature is ultimately much worse a thing than letting yourself endure the inevitable.
Del Toro, who also wrote the script, is in this case misguidedly more interested in a conventional three-act narrative. His evocative themes are only thinly explored — they have a footnote-ish feel. He’s also more indebted in the long run to story than to character, when it should be the other way around. Though we’re meant to get attached to the Grises, a family that also includes Jesús’ compassionate wife Mercedes (Margarita Isabel), the task becomes a trying one. Del Toro, as if it were a stylistic choice, gives Aurora very few lines of dialogue; she says a single word during a climactic scene, for dramatic effect. But to render a child watching her grandfather essentially turn into a vampire mute when she isn’t is a disservice. We want to hear her perspective (to be sure, Cronos, from her point of view, might have imbued in the movie a more forceful emotional pull) but Del Toro unwisely robs Aurora of a voice. Mercedes is characterized as oblivious; she's not a lot more than a dutiful wife. We don’t know very much about her. Luppi, however, is wonderful in the film, conveying a kind of expert, bottled-in jitteriness that Del Toro didn't write for him.
There are some neat visuals and ideas in Cronos. You can see, in the near-baroque set design and sedulous composition, the seeds of what Del Toro would illustrate for us later. And you can sense how he would refine his status as a metaphor-loving, thinking man’s horror filmmaker down the line. But Cronos is disjointed — a project from a director who takes for granted the elements of his movie that are actually among its most compelling. B-