Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson for Horror.com
If you like your immortals in their prime of life — sexy, powerful and well-dressed — then paunchy, gray-haired vampire Jesus Gris probably won't get your blood boiling.
Personally, I'm all over the mythos; I love Lestat and Count Dracula. The "everyman" vampire just doesn't do it for me. However, Jesus Gris, an elderly antiques dealer who becomes rather pathetic in his vampirism, is the invention of one of my favorite directors: Guillermo del Toro. So when the first-ever DVD version of Cronos was announced, I was intrigued.
If Guillermo del Toro decided to direct The Yellow Pages, I'd probably be first in line. But I'm a fairly recent convert. My introduction to del Toro came through his least critically-liked film, Mimic. I found the stylish bug-thriller fun and suspenseful. Next, I saw Blade 2 and thoroughly enjoyed it; I even preferred it to the first installment. Then came The Devil's Backbone, which is one of the best ghost stories I have seen. It's a chilling and melancholy tale that stays with you long after the last frame fades. Finally, I saw Cronos, which is actually del Toro's first feature film.
The Cronos DVD cover, like the original poster, has little to do with the content of the film. Yes, there is a golden, stabbing scarab, but you don't see one inviting, lissome female neck get bitten anywhere in the 90+ minute opus. What you do get is a young del Toro's evident eye for symmetry and visual art — many of the film's shots are composed in the manner of paintings by the Old Masters. Even though the vampire isn't a hottie and doesn't don a black satin cape, Cronos is quite beautiful in many ways.
After an engrossing and hooking prologue set in 1535, Cronos's plot unfolds as a modern-day Mexican antiquarian, Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi, who returned to the del Toro fold for The Devil's Backbone), happens upon an elegant, mechanized scarab. The golden beetle, looking like something Faberge would have designed, delivers a painful and immortal sting. The puncture wound bestows an illusion of youth... and a vampire's unwavering desire for blood. Gris doesn't bite any beautiful young female necks but in one cringingly effective scene, he does lap from a nosebleed puddle off the floor of a public restroom.
Meanwhile, The Cronos Device is selfishly sought by an embittered, terminally ill miser, Dieter de la Guardia (played to the hilt of hateful by Claudio Brook). His slightly off-kilter, goonish nephew Angel (Ron Perlman, who was in Blade 2 and will return in Hellboy), who is loath to see his uncle live a moment longer, reluctantly does the old man's bidding. Needless to say, Angel seals his fate when he wanders into the eclectic little antique shop, looking for a very special item made in 1535.
Cronos focuses mostly on Gris's fall into blood addiction, and the forlorn love he feels for his little granddaughter, Aurora (a silent but effective Tamara Shanath), who remains by his side, even as the evil overtakes him. (Gris is a vampire who sleeps not in an ornate, ancient coffin, but in his granddaughter's toy chest.)
There are a few action scenes, but they are not scary and mostly feel tacked-on and somewhat stilted. The artistic look of the film and the schlocky latex vampire skin are at odds with each other, and some of the actors are inconsistent in their characterizations.
The story rambles, never really sinking its teeth in. It moves so slowly, Cronos could well be a disappointment to most horror fans. Still, it can't be argued that upon its release Cronos did win the Grand Prize in the Critics' Week at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and nine Mexican Academy Awards, including best picture and director. Even if you find it tedious, you have to admit there is something about Cronos (namely, the director's stamp).
If you are a fan of del Toro, then the extras on this DVD will not disappoint. An intelligent, well-spoken and often humorous man, del Toro's over-the-film commentary is far more enjoyable than the movie by itself. His narrative definitely enriches the experience of seeing the movie, whether it's your first time or your tenth. Note: In the commentary, del Toro talks about a DVD extra that I could not find (the blueprint book for The Cronos Device, revealed page by page) — either it's Easter-egged, or it didn't make the cut.
In addition to the commentary, there is a Director's Perspective featurette which is a 2003 sit-down interview with the maestro, juxtaposed with behind-the-scenes footage and scenes from the film. There is also an interview (in Spanish, subtitled) with Federico Luppi, who reveals a lot of fun little tidbits about what it was like to play a nontraditional vampire. Also included are snippets of Del Toro's earlier short films (which star his mother!), and anecdotes from him about growing up in a deeply religious household.
The Photo Gallery is above average. While it does have some of the standard on-the-set and behind-the-scenes photos, there are also some pretty, artistic shots. If you really want to get arty, then definitely check out the Art Gallery, which features del Toro's own impressive and striking drawings and paintings.