[written by writer, Orrin Grey]
I’m probably going to come off like a back-cover shill if I say that Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos is a vampire movie unlike any other, but that doesn’t make it any less true. For his first feature, del Toro chose the story of a different kind of vampire than the ones we usually see, one with its roots not in the annals of religion or disease or evil spirits, but in alchemy.
The central idea behind the vampirism in Cronos is that an insect contained inside the titular Cronos Device filters the blood of the person who uses it, and adds to that blood a single drop of a mysterious “fifth essence” that alchemists believed could purify other elements, transforming base matter into its pure, eternal form (hence lead into gold, or mortal flesh into eternal flesh). This is only implied in the actual text of the movie, hinted at but never exposited, but del Toro makes it very clear in his commentary track.
While this procedure is fairly unprecedented, at least in vampire cinema, many of the side-effects are familiar. The Cronos Device grants youth and vigor, but the user becomes addicted to human blood, plagued by a thirst that nothing else can quench, and also develops an aversion to sunlight. Its user rises from his own death and not only becomes pale but actually sloughs off his skin to reveal pale, marble-like flesh beneath; the “purified” flesh granted by the “fifth essence.”
The vampire of Cronos, though, is more different from usual cinematic vampires than he is similar. He has no fangs, for instance, nor anything significant in the way of supernatural powers aside from his longevity. Nor is the vampire of Cronos young or “sexy.” Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), our protagonist, comes upon the device by accident when he discovers it in the base on an archangel statue in his antique shop. He is an old man in a pleasant but passionless marriage, and even when the device restores his vigor, he is still far removed from the typically sexualized Hollywood vampire. Del Toro takes pains not to glamorize Gris’s condition, or his suffering, as exemplified by a scene in which Gris licks drops of blood from off the floor of a public restroom.
In his commentary track, del Toro talks about how he wanted Cronos to have “layers of vampirism.” Not only the textual, objective vampirism of the main character, but also echoes of social, political, spiritual, and personal vampirism. One of the places this is clearest is in the form of the film’s “villains.” The industrialist de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) is a literal “hollow man” who has been physically hollowed-out by surgeries and symbolically hollowed-out by greed. He is a man desperate for eternal life, but for whom life holds no pleasure. His nephew Angel (played to perfection by Ron Perlman) is a thug who does his uncle’s dirty work in the hopes of someday inheriting a company that he has no idea what to do with. Both of them want things so badly that they’re willing to commit terrible acts to get them, without ever knowing or examining why they want them in the first place; as addicted to their desires as Gris becomes to blood and the Cronos Device.
There is an element of vampirism and victimization in almost every relationship in Cronos, to the point that del Toro says, in that same commentary track, that he feels that the ultimate victim of the movie is the insect at the heart of the device itself, a creature trapped and enslaved to forever bring eternal life to others.
Del Toro has achieved a lot of much-deserved renown as a director for his personal and visionary movies like Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and even Hellboy. But while Cronos is not always as technically impressive as the movies on which he later made his name, it seems every bit as personal, and there are traits in it that are every bit as representative of del Toro’s particular genius. From the Cronos Device itself, to the carefully detailed medieval “manual” that accompanies it, to the archangel statue in which it is hidden and the gallery of “punished” statues that de la Gaurdia has gone through in his search, the seeds of del Toro’s vision are all very much on display here, making for a quiet, subdued, a beautiful and powerful vampire film that is, yes, unlike any other.