You're probably most familiar with Guillermo del Toro's more recent work, such as the underrated Mimic, the creepy The Devil's Backbone, or—most likely—the pumped-up action-horror sequel Blade 2. But take a gander at his first film, Cronos, a strangely haunting tale of vampirism and immortality. It's a deeply personal work more in line with The Devil's Backbone than with his admittedly strong Hollywood work, and it was a multiple award winner at Cannes and at the Mexican Academy Awards. If you're a del Toro fan, you owe it to yourself to study the origins of this talented filmmaker.
Cronos is a mostly Spanish-language film that begins, curiously, with an English-language voice-over that provides the film's key backstory. It seems that a 14th-century alchemist invented a beautifully wicked device, resembling a gold scarab beetle, that held the key to immortality. After living for centuries in a vampiric state, the alchemist was undone by an earthquake in Mexico, and the device was lost to time. Cronos' story really begins with the present-day relationship between antique dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) and his loving but apparently mute granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath). Together, they find the long-lost cronos device inside an old wooden archangel statue, deep inside his store, and Gris quickly gives in to the unspeakable temptations of the device. Meanwhile, a decrepit and lonely industrialist, Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook), has discovered a journal left by the ancient Spanish alchemist and has been desperately searching for the device that Gris stumbled upon. With the help of his dunderheaded American nephew, Angel (Ron Perlman), he intends to find the device—at all costs.
Cronos is at once an overtly horrific, gory tale of the curse of immortality and an achingly gentle story about a grandfather and granddaughter. Guillermo del Toro infuses his film with a beautiful magic realism that's tinged with the melancholy tones of that central relationship. Aurora loves her grandfather despite his descent into ugly vampirism (although the word "vampire" is never uttered) and addiction and undeath. Theirs are the characterizations that make Cronos something special.
Filled with quiet moments of raw power, Cronos nevertheless stumbles in a few places, notably in its characterization of Angel, who is a comic-relief clown amidst the horror. He's never the villain we want him to be, and his uncle is too isolated to provide much menace. But at the same time, there's a terrible bitterness to the character of Dieter de la Guardia, alone and frightened in his solitary realm as death inevitably marches toward him. It's undeniably a strong characterization, but it fails to spark the story's action the way it should. These are minor quibbles in a film that definitely has staying power.
Cronos broils with religious imagery and texture. As with The Devil's Backbone, del Toro gives Cronos a throbbing undercurrent of Latin spirituality that spreads throughout all aspects of the production, from major plot points to minor symbols. The result is a film that seems to hold a deep respect for its subject matter, no matter how fantastical it becomes.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Lions Gate presents Cronos in a very fine anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Detail is mostly terrific, although the image tends to softness in backgrounds. At times, I perceived a flatness to the image, but at other times, it boasted a pleasing depth. Digital artifacting rears its head in some scenes but is muted in others. For example, in scenes of high contrast, I noticed distracting ringing at edges. It's a somewhat schizophrenic transfer, looking gorgeous at times and the slightest bit questionable at others.
The best aspect of this transfer is its attention to del Toro's color palette, which is both richly textured and old-fashioned. The deep browns and reds give the film a sepia beauty that reinforces the film's theme of immortality. But at the same time, this is a 10-year-old film that was made relatively cheaply, and it doesn't have the gorgeous depth of more recent efforts—such as Blade 2. As if to compensate for its age, the image appears a bit darkened and grainy, but overall, this is a more-than-satisfying effort.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc provides a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that is mostly confined to the front soundstage. This audio track isn't terribly dynamic, but it does throw some ambient noise into the surrounds, as well as some key components of the score. Dialog is clear and suffers only from a slight loss in fidelity. Stereo separation across the front is dynamic.
Unfortunately, the only English subtitles available (there are two options) both seem to be Closed Captioning. In other words, they include mention of non-dialog sounds such as bells ringing and unintelligible screams. The first option subtitles all dialog, including—unnecessarily—the English bits. The second option drops the subtitling for the English dialog. But neither are true subtitles.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Lions Gate has put together a striking array of supplements for its special edition of Cronos. Frankly, if del Toro is involved, you know you can look forward to something special.
First up is a wonderful Commentary with Guillermo del Toro. He talks nonstop throughout the film in his uniquely engaging way. (If you've listened to del Toro commentaries in the past, you know what to expect, and you won't be disappointed.) My favorite aspect of this track is the attention del Toro pays to the film's autobiographical elements. He tells a very personal story about his grandmother that's quite touching, and you can see the way it affected his storytelling. He also talks about the film's strong religious imagery and symbolism, as well as the recurring images of time. This was an excellent one-sided conversation, covering his love of insects, his love for "damaged people and buildings"—he says "imperfection is the essence of humanity"—and his theory that NAFTA represents the vampirism of Mexico. This is a must-listen, particularly if you're a fan.
Next is a Producers Commentary with Alejandro Springall, Bertha Navarro, and—recorded separately—Arthur Gorson. The first two participants are Spanish speakers, and their contributions are appropriately subtitled in English. Interestingly, Gorson's comments, in English, are also (needlessly) subtitled in English. This was a difficult track to listen to because of the mix of languages, but it does impart some interesting third-party looks at the production and at del Toro. I laughed when all the participants agreed that del Toro loves cockroaches. Particularly toward the end, the track lapses into long silences.
Over in the Special Features section, you'll find an informative Director's Perspective, which is a 15-minute talking-head interview with Guillermo del Toro about his film. Some of the material from the commentary is repeated here, but this piece offers terrific behind-the-scenes and biographical information. He talks about his humble Super 8 beginnings, and we even get gory glimpses of these schoolboy productions, which involved his mother. Endearing himself to me immediately, he says, "Horror is art. It's a brave genre." One of the more interesting aspects of this piece is his assertion that three things were standing in the way of Cronos' success: He was in the wrong country to produce a genre film, he was too young, and he had insufficient money. And yet Cronos broke through and became a successful "good start" regardless. This is a fine little featurette, and del Toro's enthusiasm shines through.
The 5-minute Making of Cronos featurette is an interview with star Frederico Luppi, who shares his recollections about the shoot and the director. There are quite a few enticing behind-the-scenes clips distributed throughout. This is presented in Spanish with English subtitles.
A Photo Gallery contains mostly behind-the-scenes shots but also some production photos, and an Art Gallery holds a brief collection of original concept drawings by del Toro, straight from his notebooks. These images are few but intricate and involved.
You also get Easter Egg theatrical trailers (anamorphic widescreen) for Cronos, Cabin Fever, Godsend, and Intacto.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Lions Gate has put together an admirable DVD presentation of Cronos. Guillermo del Toro's first film is something to savor, so now's your best chance. Filled with impressive supplements and good-as-can-be image and sound quality, I give this disc my highest recommendation—even though the subtitles could have been better.