Ahh, the Criterion Collection. They’ll release a hundred consecutive installments of obscure arthouse and foreign films to solidify their reputation and credibility as an “upscale” distributor of fine cinema and then BAM! Michael Bay’s Armageddon.
Not that cinematic masterpieces such as RoboCop don’t deserve to be held on the same jewel-encrusted pedestal as, say, Seven Samurai (and I’m not even being sarcastic, here), but the Criterion Collection does seem to be all over the place in terms of what fits their, uh, criteria.
On that note, we have Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature film, the 1993 horror flick called Cronos (and #551 in the Criterion Collection). The film itself is a fairly bland piece of entertainment; an outer shell of character and plot clichés with a warm and gooey melodrama at its center. The film seems to have warranted inclusion in such a prestigious library due to the glimpses of potential it displays from a once bright-eyed nobody who is now an industry superstar. But while spotting all the “del Toro-isms” can be fun, Cronos is ultimately a pretty humdrum flick.
Cronos (The Criterion Collection)
Down Mexico way, the kindly old curio shop owner, Jesus Gris (Frederico Luppi), has come into possession of an ancient alchemic device capable of granting immortality… at a tremendous price. Jesus’s brief return to youthful glory is tragically cut short by the drug-like addiction to the device’s power and its loathsome side effects. His worries are further compounded when he runs afoul of the villainous millionaire, De La Guardia (Claudio Brook) and his scheming nephew, Angel (Ron Perlman), who will stop at nothing to obtain the device.
The story in Cronos, if that synopsis didn’t convey it to you already, is pretty lackluster and could very easily be confused with the plot of any Saturday morning cartoon or the most uninspired of comic books: An ordinary man stumbles across a machine that grants him super powers, an evil corporate businessman wants to get his hands on it and the two wage war against one another. Jeez, where have I heard that before?
The villains are probably the worst aspect of the film, which is a hard thing for me to type considering one of them is played by Ron Perlman. De La Guardia is as empty as a husk can be; he’s old and dying, doesn’t want to go so he uses his evil money from his evil business to make evil trouble for the kindly Jesus (pronounced “Hey, Zeus” because this is Spanish).
Perlman’s character, Angel, fairs only slightly better. His character quirks make him likeable, as he randomly asks his victims for advice on his impending nose-job, or proceeds to flip-flop between getting soused with them and beating them to death. Unfortunately, even Perlman’s skills as a renowned character actor can’t do much with what he’s given to work with. Near the end, when he believes his uncle to be dead, he even proceeds to dance a jig and scream, “At last! It’s mine! Alllllll miiiiiiine!” (in regards to De La Guardia’s fortune). It’s sort of embarrassing to watch.
But the real meat of the film comes not from the villains, but from poor Jesus and his nigh-mute granddaughter, Mercedes (Margarita Isabel). Poor Mercedes stands by helplessly (and silently), watching her loving grandfather slowly devolve into a vampiric monster at the claws of the machine. She keeps him human throughout the film and, even though she scarcely utters a sound, her performance is very convincing and warming; her inherent cuteness and innocence creating a nice juxtaposition with her grandfather’s progressively more monstrous appearance.
Jesus’s gradual decay, while full of pathos and tragedy, recalls memories of David Cronenberg’s The Fly perhaps a bit too much for comfort. His initially joyous reaction to a device that he thinks benefits his health, followed quickly by a horrific downward spiral into monstrosity, bears more than a passing resemblance to Jeff Goldblum’s predicament. The slow decay of his humanity isn’t nearly as gross as that other insect-themed movie, but the parallels are all there and hard not to notice.
Guillermo del Toro’s unmistakable style bleeds through in Cronos, though it isn’t as elaborate and overbearing as in his more recent and well-known offerings, such as Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. Still, the Italian horror-derived visual elements are all there in the lighting and off-kilter camerawork. Del Toro’s more nightmarish imagery seeps through in the form of the ever-mutating Jesus, but really pops out when the camera takes us inside the Cronos device; through the grinding gears, ruby-red glass and ultimately ending at the stinger of some humongous and disgusting insect, injecting its warping venom through tubes and needles. It’s definitely more subdued in the visuals than del Toro’s recent epics, but that’s sort of the charm, too, as you get to see what the man’s capable of without dump trucks of money getting his back.
The Criterion Collection DVD comes packed with bonus features, something that finally makes the Criterion Collection worth the absurd MSRP stamped on the package (recall the early years of the series, when you were paying $39.99 a disk and were lucky if you got a still gallery). The best of the bonus features is a 1987 short film del Toro directed, Geometria, which is horrifying, ridiculous and very funny. I, uh, sort of liked it better than the feature film. Sorry, del Toro.
While I seem to be hitting Cronos pretty hard, the movie does have its upsides in terms of visual elements and is generally well-acted on part of the protagonists. It’s just a pretty cut-and-dry, forgettable horror film with ideas that are all mostly worn-out. Still, it’s a better first impression of del Toro’s skill than Mimic, which is probably the first del Toro film most of us ever saw. So there’s that.
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