Directed by: Guillermo del Toro || Produced by: Arthur H. Gorson, Bertha Navarro, Alejandro Springall
Screenplay by: Guillermo del Toro || Starring: Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook Margarita Isabel, Tamara Shanath, Daniel Gimenez Cacho
Music by: Javier Alvarez || Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro || Edited by: Raul Davalos || Country: Mexico || Language: Spanish, English
Running Time: 92 minutes
Guillermo del Toro’s first feature-length film, released in 1993, began the director’s longtime fascination with pulp horror, science-fiction, and grisly vampire mythology, as well as his frequent collaborations with actors Federico Luppi of Argentina and American Ron Perlman. Del Toro is one of the most likable and fan-friendly active directors of the past twenty years due to his fascination with and dedication to genre films, his imaginative and striking visual directorial style, and how he is able to flit between languages, cultures, and film industries with ease while always maintaining his distinctive auteur style; you can tell he has great affection for his audience and makes movies to both entertain viewers and share a bit of himself. Del Toro is a people’s filmmaker if there ever was one, and it all started here with Cronos, a tale about both spirituality and vampirism. Sadly, the man would take time to warm up to his now potent filmmaking skills.
Cronos is a worthwhile film, but the most disappointing thing about the movie is how it’s never as foreboding as its prologue lets on. The scene is set by a narrator describing the devious concoctions and experiments done by a 16th century alchemist to create a device that would give him immortality. The prologue sequence ends with the same man being found recently impaled to death through the heart after a building collapse. The year was 1937. The alchemist also had ghastly pale white skin and investigators found gruesome tubs filled with blood from a fresh corpse.
Sadly, this realist’s take on vampire mythology never commits to the grisly dark tone set by its opening, instead opting for a more family-friendly, introspective narrative about aging, personal fears of death, and gory gag-humor pieces. Screenwriting logic 101 dictates that you determine the tone or “cinematic flavor” of your film within the first fifteen minutes or so, or within the length of the opening scene. If you want to make a movie that’s a splash of several different genres (like Bollywood or Tarantino movies often do), that’s fine, but make sure to establish all those varying tones at the beginning and don’t change them halfway through the story. The problem with Cronos is that its opening and first half hour or so feel decidedly more serious than the remaining sixty minutes, which are filled with repetitive gag humor, slapstick jokes, and non-threatening villains.
More to the point, the mechanisms and lore behind the film’s main plot-device, the Cronos, are never explored in detail or explained. I’m all for retaining mystery in fantasy and sci-fi narratives, but at some point these cryptic screenplays feel more like cock teases than actual suspense (e.g. Prometheus ), and the glossed over Cronos feels like a missed opportunity. This narrative has a juicy, dark fantasy of which del Toro could’ve taken full advantage. The premise of the film in hindsight feels del Toro-esque, but the experience also feels as if del Toro was still learning how to maintain tone.
What we get instead of the teased, vampire-themed thriller is a story about growing old, dealing with mortality, and spending time with your grandchildren. Some of the introspection is well written and the good performances from Luppi and Perlman carry much of the film by themselves, which is why the movie does’t fail as a functional story. A few of the child-friendly jokes are cute, like Luppi discovering that he’s intolerant to sunlight and his granddaughter hiding him in a coffin-like casket, where he sleeps during the day. Despite the screenplay’s reluctance to dive deeper into its own fiction and its disappointing lack of tension, the characters’ charm compensates and makes the film feel a great deal smarter than your average indie flick.
Despite all its shortcomings, Cronos remains a competent del Toro flick if only for its historical significance as the first movie ever made by one of today’s most entertaining and artistically honest directors. It retains its auteur’s signature style and his ability to blend the fantastical with the realistic in a way few other filmmakers can. Luppi’s good in it, Perlman’s good in it, and film is built around a creepy plot-device that, however unfortunate its unexplained history may be, is still a workable piece of imagination that most vampire films would kill for. That being said, my criticisms detailed above are not nitpickings, but legitimate weaknesses of a narrative and premise that were not explored to the best of del Toro’s abilities; one should be aware before seeing this film that its unsettling opening, as well as its foreboding poster, should be taken with a grain of salt.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Cronos has a prologue and introductory credits to die for. Its premise and central plot-device show the creative genius of del Toro. Luppi makes a sympathetic protagonist and Perlman, despite an altogether un-special character, constantly entertains with his charismatic wisecracks.
— However… the story is unwilling to dig deeper into its creepy setup. A good portion of the gags grow tiresome, and some of the thematic remarks about aging and parental responsibility cliches are in contrast with the creative premise and titular plot-driver.
—> ON THE FENCE
? Ron, don’t ever change that square jaw of yours! Your character’s running “gag” with plastic surgery concerns me, because your nose and right-angle of a jaw are your defining features.