Combustible Celluloid
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With: Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook, Margarita Isabel, Tamara Shanath, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Mario Iván Martínez, Farnesio de Bernal, Juan Carlos Colombo, Jorge Martínez de Hoyos
Written by: Guillermo del Toro
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
MPAA Rating: R for horror violence and for language
Language: Spanish, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 92
Date: 05/01/1993

Cronos (1993)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Buggin' Out

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Guillermo Del Toro has become one of the most interesting of the new auteurs. Over the course of just seven films in 18 years, he has established a definite, fluid, rich visual style and specific pet themes, not to mention a singular fascination and enthusiasm for a certain kind of genre film. He also manages the nearly impossible feat of juxtaposing personal comic book movies (Blade II, Hellboy) in Hollywood and more ambitious works of art (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth) elsewhere.

I had seen his debut feature Cronos some time back, and I liked it, but it did not resonate with me, and I was glad for the chance to see it again now that I have become more familiar with Del Toro's work as a whole, and now that the Criterion Collection has released it on a spectacular Blu-Ray for 2010. Tellingly, it's an English/Spanish hybrid, with characters speaking both languages, and it begins Del Toro's fascination with gears and mazes.

Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) runs an antique shop in Mexico. Inside a little statue, he discovers a beautiful metallic scarab. As he holds it in his hand and winds its key, it stabs him and slices open his flesh. Gris becomes agitated and tormented, and is drawn to the device again. Upon using it a second time, he discovers that he has begun to age backwards, and that he has never felt better in his life. Unfortunately, he has become somewhat addicted to the device and he begins suffering weird side effects, such as being unable to endure sunlight.

Meanwhile, a sick old man, De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), is looking for the device hoping to use it to restore his own youth and vitality. He has spent his life studying the device and knows its drawbacks. He also has a jumbo-sized nephew, Angel (Ron Perlman), who does the old man's dirty work, negotiating and charming people, and when that doesn't work, pounding and pummeling them.

Perlman is great here (he would go on to work with Del Toro three more times, notably as the lead in the Hellboy movies) but what really makes Cronos special is the inclusion of Gris' beloved granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath), who helplessly watches her grandfather's transformation, and eventually decides to come to his aid. Del Toro doesn't exactly film from her point of view, but by including her, he adds a dimension of fairy tales, innocence and unreality to the otherwise horrific proceedings. She barely speaks, and there doesn't seem to be any worry over exposing her to gory, graphic images. Rather, she seems to enable them. Indeed, without her presence to ignite his curious, playful sensibility, Gris probably never would have discovered the scarab in the first place.

The alchemist Uberto Fulcanelli is another clever invention, giving the movie a long sense of history and myth, not to mention setting the movie during Christmas and New Year's, providing a weird kind of decorative backdrop. The vampire images aren't particularly ordinary either; consider the scene in which Gris, during a New Year's celebration, follows a man with a bloody nose into the bathroom. He stares hungrily at the wound, and then considers licking the discarded blood from the rim of the sink. Before he can move, a man comes and washes it away, but there is still a little puddle on the floor...

I suppose that the overall story arc here isn't really that special or deep, but Del Toro conjures up a delightfully potent atmosphere and motion for it, born no doubt of a real appreciation for such things. One of extras on the new Blu-ray is a tour of Del Toro's personal museum, an astounding collection of movie memorabilia, sculptures, props, toys, posters, books, masks, and videos that would humble even Tarantino or Scorsese. Even if he's reaching into a grab bag of stories already told, Del Toro brings that same kind of intensity to the camera. And that's what makes him special.

Otherwise, the Criterion disc comes with a terrific early Del Toro short film, recently completed, called Geometria (based on a story by Fredric Brown). The movie comes with its opening narration available in Spanish, or the English version recorded for the 1993 U.S. theatrical release. There are two commentary tracks, many interviews, stills, and a trailer. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by critic Maitland McDonagh, as well as excerpts from Del Toro's notebook.

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