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The American market for horror films has gone through its share of strange trends. Twenty years ago edgy horror was a difficult sell because even a little gore might earn one an NC-17 rating; the average horror release today is an all-torture, all-Sadism extravaganza. There has been no resurgence of classic horror remakes, even with the famous Universal franchise monsters that seeded major revivals in the 1940s and late '50s.
Those films relied quite a bit on atmospheric effects over mayhem, and story values were just as important as gory action. In the late 1990s (if my information is accurate) an accomplished American director prepped a remake of the Universal Mummy character, a project intended to revive the spooky spirit of the old classics. It was instead dropped in favor of the Mummy remake we all know, which is not a horror film but a thrill-ride CGI fest that might as well be titled Indiana Jones and the Indestructible Pixel Guy You Can See Through. The succeeding sequels led to Van Helsing, an appalling genre-killing mish-mosh that needs a stake driven through its heart and its head cut off and stuffed with garlic. Forced to make its monster a funky knockoff of the comic book character Wolverine, the pitiful The Wolfman from last year was over-weighted with laughable, cartoonish action.
That's the bad news. The good news is that a few filmmakers that grew up as sincere monster movie fans have brought forth a few exceptions to the norm. Not surprisingly, they're foreigners like New Zealand's Peter Jackson, who has had his kicks with gross-out gore but put his heart into his Tolkien movies and his Kong remake. And in the 1990s, a pair of Mexican directors completely reversed the reputation of Latin American genre filmmaking as cheap and incompetent tales of masked wrestlers and Aztec mummies. Alfonso Cuarón proved himself a versatile contender, making a great version of a Shirley Temple-type fable (A Little Princess), one of the better Harry Potter entries, and a superb apocalyptic Sci-Fi story, Children of Men.
The enthusiastic & creative Guillermo del Toro has been a prolific producer and director, alternating between personal horror projects and commercial assignments like the Hellboy movies. Forced to back away from The Hobbit after months of preparation, he's reportedly now in pre-production on both At the Mountains of Madness and a new version of Frankenstein. His last "personal" horror effort was the chilling Pan's Labyrinth, which won three Oscars. But his first feature effort back in 1993 is an exemplary mini-classic that channels aspects of the old Universal formulas into a modern Mexican setting, and never seems old-fashioned.
Cronos is a creepy variant on stories like The Man in Half-Moon Street, where men go to extreme lengths to attain immortality, eventually paying a terrible price for their transgressions. It has aspects of the flawed but interesting The Asphyx but relies for most of its visual motifs on classic Universal thrillers like The Mad Ghoul. When its suffering hero is compelled to fall to his hands and knees to lap up blood from the floor of a public restroom, he evokes Kharis from The Mummy's Hand, prostrating himself to recover spilled Tana Leaf fluid.
But Cronos also departs from conventions both old and new. There are no youthful lovers or sexually precocious teens in the story. The hero is an antiques dealer more than a few years into middle age. He's played with authority and sensitivity by the Argentinian actor Federico Luppi, of Men With Guns and The Stone Raft as well as other films by del Toro.
Antiques merchant Jesús Gris (Luppi) finds a beautifully-crafted scarab-like metallic artifact hidden in the base of a statue, just before the belligerent customer Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman) arrives and purchases the statue for more than it's worth. Angel's sickly uncle Deiter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) convalesces in an elaborate upstairs loft in his large factory, where he is collecting matching statues in hopes of finding the one with the jeweled scarab. Realizing that the artifact must have a special value, Jesús tries to determine its function. He is shocked when the scarab's mechanical claws grab his hand and some kind of needle pierces his skin. He's even more surprised when the device revitalizes his metabolism and rejuvenates his appearance.
Jesús refuses to cooperate with Deiter's demands that he relinquish the scarab, and must discover its full story on his own. The dying Deiter wants it because it makes the bearer immortal. But it also turns any user into a functioning vampire, who must drink blood to survive. Jesús finds it impossible to hide his strange new condition from his wife and adorable granddaughter (Margarita Isabel & Tamara Shanath). When the belligerent Angel "kills" him, Jesús doesn't die. He instead becomes a disfigured ghoul -- his flesh begins to fall away, revealing a new layer of white skin.
The art direction in Cronos is as ornate and complex as Jesús' colorful antiques. Writer-director del Toro creates a fascinating, strangely credible horror icon in the fancy metallic scarab. Huge macro close-ups show its interior gears working -- and reveal some kind of uncanny grub-thing living in its interior. Jesús' memorabilia shop contrasts strongly with Deiter de la Guardia's antiseptic apartment, a clinical waiting room for the terminal tyrant. For the record, actor Claudio Brook's amazing career took in films by many great directors; he was Luis Buñuel's Simon of the Desert.
Del Toro has invented his own horror legend, from whole cloth as it were. An elaborate prologue reveals that the maker of the Cronos scarab was a 16th century alchemist, who lived until 1937 when he was crushed by the collapse of a building. The ancient man was a pearly white, described as the "color of marble in the moonlight" -- the authorities covered up the fact that an exsanguinated corpse was also found in the wreckage.
Jesús is a wholly reluctant 'monster'. Cronos puts him through the classic paces of a tragic victim, forcing him to creep about to hide his secret and its attendant appetites. Following a tradition that stretches from Florey's Murders in the Rue Morgue to Cronenberg's The Fly, Jesús final conflict with Angel takes place on a rooftop high over the city. The vampiric theme takes on a zombie context when Jesús realizes that, as long as he follows the "rules" of the Cronos scarab, he'll continue living even if his body is mangled, like the unfortunate victim of The Monkey's Paw. As in Jorge Grau's No profanar el sueño de los muertos, a mortician tacks his face back together with staples, leaving him with a rotting Frankenstein-like appearance. Formerly a rather handsome man, Jesús can't possibly return to his wife now. And how can he face his loving granddaughter, Aurora?
Unpretentious, suspenseful, and visually fascinating, Cronos is a wholly original genre gem.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Cronos (also available in Standard DVD) is a knockout transfer of this beautifully shot thriller. The tasteful production design and art direction by Tolita Figueroa & Brigitte Broch are a wonderful surprise, as even expensive horror films rarely get this kind of attention.
Criterion producer Curtis Tsui stacks the disc with a bounty of HD extras: an original Spanish-language introduction, commentaries by 1) Del Toro and 2) his producers; Del Toro's clever and drop-dead funny short horror film Geometria; new interviews with del Toro, producer Bertha Navarro and actor Ron Perlman; an older interview with actor Federico Luppi, stills, a trailer, and an insert booklet with an essay by Maitland McDonagh and excerpts from del Toro's notes for his film.
The best extra is Welcome to Bleak House, a lengthy tour of director del Toro's amazing home office, which is a storehouse / display venue for his amazing collection of fantastic art and movie memorabilia. It's sort of an ultra-classy Ackermansion where props from his movies mingle with rarities purchased in auctions or given by other directors. The Cronos scarab sits comfortably on a tabletop, while other areas are set aside to provide an inspiring work environment for his collaborators and artists. After decades of supposed "genre auteurs" that work in fantasy purely for commercial reasons, it's refreshing to see a talent who embraces the fantastic in such a wholehearted fashion.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cronos Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.