"In 1536, fleeing from the Inquisition, the alchemist Uberto Fulcanelli disembarked in Veracruz, Mexico. Appointed official watchmaker to the Viceroy, Fulcanelli was determined to perfect an invention which would provide him with the key to eternal life. He was to name it... the Cronos device. 400 years later, one night in 1937, part of the vault in a building collapsed. Among the victims was a man of strange skin, the color of marble in moonlight. His chest mortally pierced, his last words... Suo tempore. This was the alchemist." - opening narration of Cronos
Cronos was the first film by Guillermo del Toro. It is the tale of antiques dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) and his finding of the Cronos device. Tipped off by the unusual behavior of a man coming in to his shop and looking at the faces of angel statues, Jesus finds the base of one of the statues to be removable and in it finds the mysterious looking device. Along with his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) he tries to figure out what the device does, only for it to suddenly sprout insect like legs that stab Jesus in the hand in which he's holding it. Soon, Jesus finds himself feeling younger and more vibrant, and also having a barely controllable attraction to blood.
I'm not really sure what I expected, story wise, coming into this movie, but I found myself surprised. The movie didn't play out in a way I've ever seen a vampire movie play out. I knew what to expect from Del Toro as a filmmaker though. Despite this being his first feature film, it's the 7th, of the 9 movies he's made, that I've seen. Cronos is very indicative of where Del Toro would go next as a filmmaker. All of his trademarks were there from the start: mechanisms, insects, monsters, elaborate camerawork, impressive sets, imperfect families, a fascination with the mythic and legendary, Ron Perlman, all of it, it was all right there. Perlman plays Angel, the nephew of a dying man who's made a life's work of trying to track down the Cronos device.
Something Del Toro does here that he also does elsewhere is that he inverts the stereotype of the monster figure. Jesus does not become Count Dracula, Lestat, or some other conventional murderous movie vampire. He is horrified when he realizes that he'll need to drink human blood in order to live. "You can't gain eternal life from a cow or a pig" he's told. It made me think of, for the first time, that the vampire mythology contains a circle of life element to it in that a victim must die so that the vampire can live on. We pity Jesus because he doesn't want to kill, he just wants out of this deal he unwittingly has taken part in. Luppi is extraordinary at conveying this sadness, and even reminded me of a Latin Christopher Lee a few times, I'm sure intentionally on Del Toro's part.
But for Del Toro, the monsters aren't the bad guys. The ghost in The Devil's Backbone is not the villain, people are. The monsters during Ofelia's trials in Pan's Labyrinth are nothing compared to the horrific Captain Vidal. Even Hellboy, despite being born as the sign of the apocalypse, is the hero of his movie, not the villain. The monsters in Del Toro's work are not these horrific, one-dimensional things to cause fear or wreak havoc in the story. They are objects of sympathy and even curiosity. And Cronos was just the first time he was able to show this to us. It's a terrific movie.