Early in Cronos, director Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature, elderly shop-owner Frederico Luppi wraps a statue for Ron Perlman’s snazzily dressed thug. It’s a small moment; the scene is mostly about the contrast between Perlman’s charm and his looming presence, along with the surprising discovery Luppi and his granddaughter made just before his entrance. And yet there’s a physicality to Luppi’s actions, to the wrapping paper, and to the process of tying the brown sheets around the statute, that grabs the attention. Everything in the sequence has a weight and texture to it. Del Toro has staked a large part of his cinematic career on grounding the fantastical in earthy reality, and that attention to detail is evident in his debut. Shortly after Perlman leaves with his package, Luppi is injured by the strange device for which Perlman had really been searching. The violence is disturbing because it’s sudden, but also because of that moment with the wrapping paper. The mundane helps provide a sense of consequence.
This understanding of the practical difficulties of the supernatural runs throughout Cronos. Luppi finds a seemingly magical device that shaves years off his life, reinvigorating his marriage in the process, but it comes at a cost: the device has to filter through Luppi’s blood and it’s a painful, unpleasant process. Worse, the filtering isn’t a strict one-to-one ratio, and as Luppi strengthens, his need to replace the plasma he’s lost becomes more desperate. There’s also the small matter of Perlman, who’s been charged with tracking down the device by his wealthy, dying uncle. Luppi doesn’t entirely understand what’s happening to him, or the dangers he faces, but that doesn’t make those dangers any less deadly, or the needs that plague him any less acute. The plotting is intimate, focusing less on the escalating violence that generally follows in vampire stories and more on the immediate necessities of Luppi’s situation, like grabbing a pair of scissors to get at an insatiable itch, or kneeling before a small puddle of blood on a bathroom floor.
Cronos features many of the notes and themes that would surface later in del Toro’s career: as Luppi’s dark-haired, preternaturally self-possessed charge, Tamara Shanath is an obvious ancestor of Pan’s Labyrinth’s Ivana Baquero, and there are, as always, the director’s trademark “things in jars.” None of this is quite as fully realized as it would one day become, and the movie’s stolid pacing occasionally feels slack, but that same slow approach sometimes builds to instances of heartbreaking strangeness and wonder. Despite its occasional moments of terror, this is more gothic romance than horror, as del Toro’s commitment to the wondrously grotesque transforms stock elements into something richer and more profound. Inside the device that causes most of Luppi’s problems, an insect squirms and screams in pain, trapped by the human hunger for immortality. There are no innocent transactions in this fairy tale, just mortality and loss, transmuted briefly into gold.
Key features: The Criterion Blu-ray features a restored transfer with improved English subtitles; a wealth of extras include two commentary tracks (one by the director himself, ported over from the film’s original DVD release but still invaluable), video interviews, a video tour of del Toro’s office, del Toro’s entertaining short film Geometria, and a booklet with an essay by critic Maitland McDonagh and del Toro’s notes.