Cronos Review

As you expect from a feature debut Cronos offers up a director keen to proclaim both his influences and his own voice. Given that the director in question is one Guillermo del Toro – later to move on to The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy - this blend is particularly interesting. On the one hand Cronos is a film which borrows from Terence Fisher, Mario Bava and Clive Barker, on the other it demonstrates a fresh approach to the horror genre. No mere retread, it rethinks the vampire movie from a more personal perspective, both in terms of drawing on del Toro’s own preoccupations (religion, alchemy, entomology) and supplying a hefty emotional weight.

At the film’s centre is the titular device constructed in the sixteenth century. Fashioned like a clockwork toy, it in fact contains an insect and, by extension, the key to immortality. Unwittingly falling into the hands of one Jésus Gris in the 1990s (though made in 1992, del Toro has opted for the slightly futuristic setting of 1997), indeed quite literally, he soon begins to develop vampiric tendencies whilst being pursued by a reclusive industrialist who understands the device’s true powers.

Plenty of familiarity in such a setup perhaps, but then del Toro approaches his narrative from some interesting angles. Jésus isn’t merely some genre stooge destined to suck blood and avoid harsh light, but a dapper, elderly gentleman replete with ’tache and tiny spectacles. Moreover, he’s played by veteran actor Fernando Luppi (best known for A Funny Dirty Little War?), a move which lends the character great dignity and gravitas. Equally important is his relationship with Aurora, his young granddaughter. There’s a palpable bond between the two (as witnessed early on when Jésus indulges her in a game of hopscotch), yet also one that eschews sentimentality. Aurora remains almost silent throughout, whilst also allowed some strange and unexpected undercurrents which go beyond a simply tokenistic presence, in particular her dual revulsion/fascination with her grandfather’s increasingly decrepit state. Indeed, together they allow the film a strong emotional centre far beyond conventional horror norms.

And needless to say, del Toro is a director who’s familiar with the genre. More importantly he also treats his audience as having some awareness, meaning that there’s never any need to overplay the more obvious aspects. The vampiric parallels, for example, are never explicitly flaunted rather del Toro concentrates on the smaller details, the little bits of business which mean more to him: mechanisms and fluids, religious symbolism, or a fine mordant wit which takes the film into some unexpected and darkly comic areas. (Consider Jésus’ makeshift coffin or the various scenes in the morgue.) It’s all rather assured for a director previously eking out an existence in the industry as a make-up, especially one who is helming Mexico’s biggest budget production to date.

There are flaws however, though it would seem unlikely that any such external pressures are the result. A particular sore point, as far as I’m concerned, is the presence of Ron Perlman which, at times, seems to coming from a different movie entirely. Though directors such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and indeed del Toro himself, would later realise that he’s an actor best utilised in comic book environments (The City of Lost Children, Blade II and Hellboy, of course), here he injects the wrong tone. Playing the industrialist’s nephew and henchman, he treats the role in much the same as those minor roles he’s had in kids’ films such Fluke or The Trial of Old Drum. In other words, it’s all a bit knockabout, a bit too pronounced, and ultimately it sits uneasily with the more refined qualities elsewhere. Yet the fact that the scoring suffers from the much the same problem – it too being overblown at the best of times – seems to suggest that del Toro wasn’t entirely sure as to where he wished for his to go.

That said, these remain only minor problems and it’s perhaps true that Cronos remains the director’s finest work. Though he’s never really surrendered his own vision to that great a degree, the likes of Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II and most recently Hellboy still haven’t seen him produce a truly great film. A distinctive oeuvre certainly, but no masterpieces just yet. And yet, retrospectively, it seems that Cronos has always been the one to build one, the one which has heralded the most promise.

The Disc

Finally gaining a special edition in the UK following its full-frame extras-free Tartan release back in 2001, this offering from Optimum still disappoints in certain areas. For whilst we are now getting the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced, it nonetheless comes as a fairly hideous standards conversion. Thus the colours bleed heavily; any clarity which the print may have initially had is surrendered to softness, murkiness and edge enhancement; and ghosting is also expectedly prevalent. Indeed, it’s a huge disappointment, especially as so many will no doubt have been looking forward to this release.

The soundtrack fares better, here with choices of Dolby Surround (in lieu of the original Dolby Stereo) and Dolby Digital 5.1 in the original Spanish dialogue complete with optional English subs. In both cases the results are extremely pleasing. There are no technical flaws to speak of and both handle the atmosphere especially well. In fact, you could perhaps argue that the 5.1 option isn’t really necessary, given how dynamic the Surround mix is.

Of the extras the major addition is the full length commentary by del Toro himself. An enthusiastic speaker he keeps going throughout the entire film with barely a pause for breath. As such a huge amount of ground is covered from the pointing out of his tiny cameo to the state of the Mexican film industry at the time. Interestingly, he also doesn’t go into so much detail that the additional hour-long interview finds him repeating himself. Rather this piece sees his concentrate more fully outside of the film, in other words touching on his childhood, his filmic influences and his early amateur movies with a Super 8 camera. (Please note that the commentary is in English, whilst the interview comes in Spanish with burnt-in English subtitles.)

Elsewhere the disc also offers up briefer interviews with director of photography Guillermo Navarro (totalling eight minutes) and actor Fernando Luppi (in the form of a five-minute archive featurette from 1992/3). Also present are a series of galleries devoted to storyboards, sketches and the like, plus the original theatrical trailer. Rounding off the package Optimum have also included trailers for various other releases, amongst them del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone. (As with the del Toro interviews, the pieces devoted to Navarro and Luppi comes with burnt-in English subtitling.)

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Last updated: 05/07/2018 11:48:01

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