The feature debut of Guillermo del Toro (made after he cut his teeth on some short films and then in the Mexican television industry) is 1993's Cronos, an odd film that is interesting not just for its own merits but how it serves as a precursor to what the director would later accomplish and the themes he would come to be known for incorporating into his films.
After an introductory scene set in the fourteenth century tells us how an alchemist created a 'cronos device' which could give a man eternal life. The alchemist makes a mistake however, and we then cut to modern times where an antiques dealer named Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) comes into possession of an aged statue of an angel. Inside he finds a small golden mechanized toy that looks uncannily like a scarab beetle which soon 'turns on' and implants its needle like appendages into his skin. A few short days later and it becomes obvious that something is happening Jesus as a result of this - but a rich, if slightly off kilter and sickly industrial type, De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), decides he has to have it. To make this happen he sends in his nephew, Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman), to take it for him. Of course, this doesn't go as planned and as one thing leads to another, Jesus winds up in a very strange situation indeed.
Avoiding the masked luchadores, vampires and Aztec mummies so often associated with the Mexican horror film, del Toro's Chronos is a film rich with atmosphere and eerie charm. From the eerie opening with the alchemist character to the semi-predictable but wholly inevitable finale, del Toro's picture oozes with odd characters, gorgeous cinematography, interesting and generally effective make up and effects work and a premise unusual enough that it'll have no problem holding your attention. Movies in which a sick man does whatever he has to do to get himself eternal life aren't the most original concept, they've been around a while and done multiple times before this one, but del Toro's sense of pacing and knack for constructing an environment in which anything can happen help this one out immensely. On top of that his penchant for loading up his pictures with interesting cultural artifacts and Catholic iconography play a big part not just in setting the right mood for the picture but also in grounding the picture in his homeland of Mexico where Catholicism is the still dominant religion. All of these little tweaks and adjustments and all of this attention to detail results in a film that really pulls you in and keeps you wanting more - in fact, if there's one noticeable flaw in the film it's that after the splendid build up it ends fairly quickly and just a little bit too abruptly.
As far as the cast are concerned, Federico Luppi and Ron Perlman steal the show. Luppi is excellent as the sympathetic antiques dealer. He has a sense of kindness about him that makes him endearing and it's quite fascinating to watch Luppi bring his Jesus through the various changes that make his character matter in the picture. Perlman is equally good, given enough free reign here to bring things to a boiling point without ever really going over the top or chewing the scenery. His character, a borderline psychotic, becomes increasingly pulled in to the drama just as Luppi's is and it's fun to watch Perlman make the character his own.
As far as the visual go, del Toro surrounds himself with talent here, most notably cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. There's very obviously a fine eye for detail behind the camera so that shots that would otherwise pass by without much notice instead take on significance in terms of foreshadowing and symbolism. This might sound like minutia, and maybe it is, but it results in a film that rewards attentive viewers and which works on a multilayered level that is both fascinating, periodically horrifying, and all together entertaining.
Criterion offers up Cronos in a very impressive 1.78.1 widescreen 1080p high definition AVC encoded transfer that mops the floor with the previous DVD release from Lionsgate in every conceivable way. The film's grain structure is seemingly completely intact so we get a nice film like image but not at the cost of fine detail. Close up shots look excellent, you can count the pores on the characters' faces, while medium and long distance shots let us note the texture of the sets and wardrobe used in the film. There are no traces of edge enhancement or noise reduction nor are there any problems with compression artifacts even in the darker scenes. Shadow detail is very strong and color reproduction looks nice and very natural. All in all, the film looks excellent on this release, with a depth and clarity that the film has never been given before on home video.
The only audio option provided for the feature is a Spanish language DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo track, with portions spoken in English. Optional English subtitles are provided for the feature which are clean and easy to read. The audio here is clean, clear and well defined with the score really shining through in a few key scenes and helping to add considerable atmosphere to the proceedings. Dialogue is never problematic, and the levels are well balanced throughout. There were no audible problems with hiss or distortion to complain about and there's a good sense of depth and clarity here that makes it very effective.
First up, a far as the extras are concerned, are two audio commentaries. The first track features Guillermo del Toro flying solo. This track was recorded in 2002 and is conducted in English. Rarely at a loss for words, del Toro covers all of his bases here, from his inspiration to stories about what it was like on set to working with his different producers and actors to the effects work. He's always an amiable guy and this track is no exception, he's easy to listen to and comes across as intelligent, offering up lots of information without ever getting overly pretentious or taking things any more seriously than he needs to. The second track brings together producers Arthur H. Gorson and Bertha Navarro and co-producer Alejandro Springall. This track is in English and Spanish with optional English subtitles. This track covers a good bit of the film's release history, it covers casting and production values and different changes that the film went through on its trip to completion. Both tracks are quite good and between the two there's a lot of good information to go through.
Complimenting the commentary tracks are a few exclusive video interviews, the first with del Toro (17:36), the second with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (12:36), the third with actor Ron Perlman (7:25) and the fourth with actor Federico Luppi (5:25). These cover some of the same ground as the commentary tracks do but it's nice to hear from the cast members here and to get their input on this quirky production. Navarro's input is also very welcome as it details some of the visuals and why they appear they way they do in the movie.
Criterion have also included Geometria, a previously unreleased short film, in Spanish with optional English subtitles, made by del Toro in 1987 and finished in 2010 which details the story of a young man who goes to some rather extreme lengths to get what he wants. It's a fun watch and an interesting look at the director's past and is presented here with an introduction with the director (6:27). Complimenting this is Welcome To Bleak House (10:14), a rather unusual but interesting supplement in which del Toro gives us a guided tour of his home office and shows off his various interesting artifacts and collectibles.
Rounding out the extras on the disc are the film's original theatrical trailer, the optional original Spanish language voiceover introduction, a still gallery, animated menus and chapter stops. All of the extras on the disc are presented in high definition. Inside the keepcase is a forty-two page color insert booklet containing an essay on the film from Maitland McDonagh and Del Toro's notes made while the film was being shot.
This Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of Cronos is an excellent package all around - not only do we get the film in beautiful high definition quality but we get a superb array of supplements to accompany it which put not only this film in context but which do a fine job of documenting the director's early career. The movie itself holds up well as an enjoyably odd slice of cinema with atmosphere to spare and some fascinating ideas. This is absolutely worth a look for anyone interested in oddball horror/genre pictures and comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.