Having just surfaced from The Shape of Water, Golden Globe winner Guillermo del Toro has undoubtedly proven himself as both a magician and master of horror. The tentacles of his imagination have extended into dark places, giving us everything from mutant cockroaches to a steampunk army of golden elves, but it was his first film venture, Cronos, that might also be one of his most exquisitely terrifying.
Don't get me wrong. I worship at the altar of del Toro. Pan's Labyrinth is the kind of dark fantasia that makes the Brothers Grimm look like they wrote lullabies. Crimson Peak is what happens when Victorian Gothic horror novels wake up in the middle of the night to stories of the strange and macabre dancing between their pages. His tendency toward the bizarre spawned humanoid insects in Mimic and breathed life into Mike Mignola's Hellboy. Even among these dream visions of skeletal fairies and haunting atmospherics, there is one del Toro film that needs to be exhumed from the grave.
Cronos needs to emerge from obscurity.
The 1993 vampire film that forced del Toro to remortgage his house, sell his van, and take out a massive loan was one of the most expensive Mexican movies ever made at the time, costing about $2 million. While it ended up buried in the U.S. box office (garnering just over $600,000), its mythic visuals, complex relationships, and theme of corruption of innocence are trademarks of del Toro's, later reflected in films such as the critically acclaimed Pan's Labyrinth. These elements of fantasy and horror that pulse with humanity would make Cronos go on to achieve cult status.
In a dusty antique shop, the kind where only so much light can filter through the windows before the rest is trapped in chronic shadows, owner Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) unearths an archangel statue that might as well have fallen from the heavens. What was once immaculate plaster is chipped and stained from years of neglect; roaches crawl out of the statue's one gaping eye socket. The artifact also hides a deadly secret, an intricately carved curiosity that appears to be a piece of chocolate wrapped in gold foil.
It turns out the thing Gris has discovered is a monstrous mechanism that sprouts insectile legs and clamps down on his hand — he can't dig it out without mangling his palm. This object, which is really a golden carapace for a living insect, is the centuries-old work of a Faustian alchemist who committed blasphemy in his search for eternal life. Gris slowly develops a thirst for human blood as he is pursued by the dying Dieter La Guardia (Claudio Brook, who del Toro described as "psychotronic") and his nephew, Angel, for the one thing that would transform his mortal flesh.
Del Toro's inspiration for Cronos lies more in the hideous beast of Nosferatu than the glamorized vampires of today who seduce unwitting librarians and sparkle in the sun. His vision of these creatures is raw and bloody and unforgiving. Vampirism is a thing born of insatiable gluttony, with the ugliness of its nature visible in the open sores and peeling skin of the thing that Gris morphs into. He is remade in the image of the doomed alchemist so desperate for death in the wreckage of his experiment. Immortality is exposed as a curse.
Merging the mechanical with the organic is a subject that has always appealed to del Toro, who used cow innards to breathe life into the insect pulsating with human blood inside the device. The mechanism itself is engraved with the symbolism of eternity, a theme that pervades the film from the moment you see those first flashes of the alchemist completing his diabolical work to the last gasps of Gris as he faces the rising sun. Eternity is nothing but a delusion, even for those who have not been morphed into vampires. Everyone in this film is a body of rotting flesh. Angel obsesses over needing plastic surgery, Dieter is being eaten by cancer, and Gris' wife is fighting age with lipstick. The only character who is truly immortal is the one who cannot yet distinguish between life and death.
Aurora is del Toro's idea of what childhood really is — gritty and even perverse, far from the rainbows and unicorns and pixie dust that are supposed to blind us to the harshness ahead. Guillermo's fascination with the concept of a state of grace (which rose out of his own Catholic upbringing) gave birth to Aurora, whose name alone is symbolic of a dawn that is yet untainted. Purity is not something the director equates with innocence. Aurora may be pure in the sense of a child having committed no sins, but has also been corrupted. You see her watching with a creepy sort of voyeurism as her grandfather drinks the blood of a fresh corpse. To her, he is just her grandfather, alive or undead, and she shelters the vampire in her toy box as she would a teddy bear.
Cronos is not the kind of horror film that feeds off schlock. You won't find clown masks or hordes of brain-eating zombies here. There is gore, but it is a deeper, more contemplative type of gore, not the type that splatters all over a windshield. Self-proclaimed "freak" del Toro connects to what everyone else casts aside. He sees the beauty in dark, deformed, and decomposing things, a vein that's continued throughout his work. His aesthetic is more about finding the light in the dark than drowning the darkness with light. The cracked angel has a certain majesty even in its flaws, and the Cronos device itself is utterly fascinating in its fusion of the organic and inorganic, something right of out Husymans' Against Nature.
Maybe that is why Cronos did not have the smash reception in 1993 that it might have received had it been released post-Pan's Labyrinth. Del Toro does not create films for popularity. He wants his audience to be uncomfortable. His mythical and provocative themes and imagery will reach the darkest corners of your mind, making you question things you may have thought unthinkable. This is where Cronos sinks its fangs into your skin.