I really want to like Guillermo del Toro’s films. He seems like a very likeable man who supplies geek chic that isn’t drenched in pop culture irony. He produces thoughtful genre films that adhere to tested formulas while also being clear personal expressions that are definitely not self-conscious camp. And he makes the kind of films that I frequently like. Yet I’ve just never been able to warm up to any of his work.
For his later films, the problem is a pretty straightforward one for me. I simply don’t like the way they look. The much-lauded “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) has its virtues but, like the “Hellboy” films, the creature effects play like a lost episode of “Fraggle Rock” (or maybe “Dinosaurs” is a better comp) which makes it difficult for me to take any of it seriously. I’ll take a del Toro film over the sterile CGI spectacles that sell out multiplexes, but that’s damning with faint praise as I believe we live in the dark ages of special effects. I’m a visual pleasure junkie and, plain and simple, I don’t like to look at his movies, “Hellboy II” being the least attractive of the bunch.
His debut feature “Cronos” (1993) is actually his most visually appealing film to me, mostly because the effects (designed by his own company which gave him extensive experience in the field before assaying his first feature) are relatively modest. The storyline is pretty simple too. A 16th century alchemist builds a machine that holds the key to eternal life: the Cronos Device, a bug-like mechanical creature that looks like it stepped out of David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch.” Fast forward a little more than 400 years and the Cronos Device has mysteriously found its way into an antique shop run by the not-so-subtly named Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) who likes to spend time with his darling and almost completely silent five year old granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath).
Shortly after Jesús discovers the strange device hidden in the base of a statue, a vaguely menacing, gum-chewing man named Angel (Ron Perlman in perhaps the quirkiest role of a quirky career) buys the statue, thinking it still houses the device. When he realizes it’s gone, he makes a logical guess as to who has it, and the hunt is on. Speaking of lost episodes, was this an unfilmed script from “Friday the 13th: The Series?”
The Cronos device is a nifty bit of effects design, a golden bug that reaches out its needle-like legs to stab into the flesh of its user so it can sluice the blood through its elaborate system of gears. The instant Jesús unwittingly activates it, he is (literally) hooked by the little blood-sucker and discovers some surprising changes in himself. He looks and feels younger and healthier, a pleasant surprise to his wife Mercedes (Margarita Isabel). Unlike many horror-film characters he doesn’t puzzle long over the cause of his sudden transformation while an impatient audience waits for him to figure out the obvious. He returns to the Cronos device again and again, letting it feed ever closer to his heart so the blood can flow and the years (and eventually his skin) can peel off.
Del Toro (who also wrote the script) hurtles through the plot rapidly, not bothering to establish any rules for his fantasy world or cueing the viewer in to what’s going on. Suddenly, it appears that Jesús has become a vampire for some reason. He is forced to undertake humiliating measures such as licking a puddle of blood off the floor of a public rest room. Eternal life doesn’t feed itself, you know! Things get even worse as Angel, working for his uncle who also wants the Cronos device, pursues Jesús relentlessly, even staging a car wreck that kills him. Of course death is a minor setback which just paves the way for the resurrection of Jesús Gris. Get it?
And yet, as nifty as much of this sounds, I still find “Cronos” unsatisfying. I suspect I would be more positively disposed to the film if not for the obnoxious score by Javier Álvarez, an incessant symphony of shrieking strings that swallows virtually every scene which, for me at least, makes the action feel like it’s staged at a once-removed level, making it difficult to feel any kind of involvement with either the story or characters. Perlman is intermittently funny in a goofball role defined by a flurry of tics and idiosyncrasies, and the first-time director (who wrote a lengthy letter begging Perlman to work for him) wisely lets him run free. But the film has an inert quality, revisiting the same static sets populated by the same handful of characters who spend much of their time just standing or sitting around. It’s pretty clear early on where the film is going to wind up, so the only real attractions are the acting (Perlman hamming it up, Luppi as a convincing physical presence in his decaying body who isn’t given much of a character to work with) and some of the gross-out gags (a funny-grotesque scene at the mortuary being the film’s highlight). It’s enough to constitute a promising first feature, above average in the always difficult-to-negotiate horror genre, but I can’t muster up any more enthusiasm for it.
The film was, however, a critical success on its release, sweeping the 1993 Ariel Awards (Mexico’s equivalent to the Oscars) and winning the International Critics’ Award at Cannes. The acclaim was enough to land a studio gig on “Mimic” and the less said about that sorry experience the better. Studio interference took the film out of its hands, but this may have been a boon to the director’s career because he was able to return to a more personal project with “The Devil’s Backbone” and he has since been able to exert significant control over his projects, even the “Hellboy” franchise.
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. “Cronos” was originally released on SD in 2003 by Lion’s Gate and we do not have that available for comparison. Though the film was low budget, it is only 17 years old and the source print has obviously been well-preserved because this is a very clean, damage-free transfer. The 1080p treatment provides sharp detail and strong contrast. No artifacting visible. An excellent transfer all around.
The Blu-Ray is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack. I already noted that I’m not a fan of the soundtrack, but it certainly is well-presented (i.e. freakin’ loud as hell) by the lossless audio. Optional English subtitles are provided. Another “subtitle” option is actually a running silent commentary (in subtitles, I mean) by producer Bertha Navarro and coproducer Alejandro Springall, an odd option but a neat. I don’t know if this was available on the 2003 SD release or not.
The film can be listened with either the original Spanish introduction (narration over the prologue that tells about the creation of the Cronos Device) or the English introduction recorded for its American release.
Two commentary tracks, both recorded in 2002 and previously offered on Lion’s Gate’s 2003 SD release of “Cronos” (now discontinued), are included. The first is exclusively with Guillermo del Toro. The second commentary features producers Arthur H. Gorson and Bertha Navarro, and coproducer Alejandro Springall. A 15-minute sample of the Del Toro commentary reveals him in a low key mood fondly reminiscing about his first feature in his usual articulate manner.
“Geometria” (1987, 6 min.) is an early short film by Del Toro which he “touched” up in 2010 for this Criterion release. I admit that I only made it through about 30 seconds (once you see it, you might see why) but that’s obviously not intended as a review. The short film is accompanied by an interview with del Toro (7 min.)
“Welcome to Bleak House” (2010, 10 min.) provides a video tour of Del Toro’s office (which he nicknamed “Bleak House”), showing off some of his “bleak” toys.
The disc also includes four interviews: a 2010 interview with Del Toro (17 min.), 2009 interviews with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (12 min.) and actor Ron Perlman (7 min.) and an older archival interview with actor Federico Luppi (5 min.)
The extras collection is rounded by an extensive Stills Gallery with brief text notes explaining each image.
The 40-page inert booklet includes an appreciative essay by critic Maitland McDonagh, and fairly detailed Director’s Notes from a 1991 version of the shooting script with some updated comments added on.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” sealed Del Toro’s status as a respected auteur, a rarity for a man who has worked exclusively in the horror genre. As his first film, “Cronos” will be of obvious interest to his fans. Criterion hasn’t packed in a ton of extras, but there probably wasn’t much material to draw from. The 1080p transfer is excellent, and while I don’t have the 2003 SD release from Lion’s Gate to compare it to, I have to assume it represents a significant upgrade.