Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Cast: Federicio Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook
This debut film from renowned filmmaker, Guillermo Del Toro, is the most original take on the vampire tale ever put on screen. Melding the world of alchemy with the ancient myths of vampirism, Del Toro creates a film that evokes both the worlds of classic horror and something entirely different. It's to the director's credit
that the film relies more on characterization and emotion, rather than blood and gore to tell it's story, one of the few true classics of the 1990s horror film.
The plot begins in the 1500s, as an alchemist has created a device called, "Cronos", which is powered by an insect that when it bites the individual, bestows eternal life. There is a price of course: the individual must now obtain fresh blood. The alchemist lives until 1936, dying in a bomb raid at the start of the Spanish Civil War. It's a truly creepy and haunting intro that could have made a whole film, echoing the early horror film. Decades later, an aged antiques dealer, Jesus(Federico Luppi) discovers the device and accidently activates it, cutting himself and starting the process, which slowly begins to transform him into a monster. Luppi does not become your typical vampire, either. He begins to decompose and starts to develop a new skin underneath, and is not too particular where he derives his blood from, even licking some off of a bathroom floor.
Meanwhile, an American named, Angel(Ron Perlman) is trying to retrieve the device for his dying uncle(Claudio Brook), who wants eternal life. He manages to kill Jesus, rolling him over a cliff in his car, but he survives and returns from the dead. His granddaughter, Aurora(the adorable, Tamara Shanath) takes him in and hides himm depsite his rapidly decomposing state. He confronts the uncle and kills him and gets in a fight with the devious Angel, hurling him and himself off a roof. Quickly succumbing to his bloodlust, Jesus destroys Cronos and is last seen on his deathbed, now the vampire fully, but loved and joined by his granddaughter and wife.
Cronos is a legitimate classic horror film, unique in it's presentation, while evoking the emotions that made the classics so indelible throughout the decades. Del Toro combines the grotesque in a way that resembles Cronenberg, with the focus on body horror, while creating a monster of sympathy. Luppi's character is never a true villain, but rather, a victim. His cravings for the Cronos device lead to his downfall and his final redemption. The relationship he has with his family is moving and serves as the backbone of the film's power, creating a sense of tragedy that is often forgotten in the modern horror film.
Another unique touch was infusing so much humor throughout, which dosen't just leaven the mood, but creates a more human approach to horror, that many filmmakers could profit from.
Del Toro's direction is superb, particularly on a debut film. Much of the imagery is poetic and gothic, establishing trademarks of the filmmaker's work for years to follow. The opening scenes with the alchemist and his home are weird and disturbing, while the later scenes with Luppi and his granddaughter are warm and affecting. That combination of horror and sentiment would set Del Toro apart from his contemporaries. His use of humor and fantasy, making his work comparable to the great James Whale.
Luppi may deliver the most effective horror characterization of the decade, Anthony Hopkin's Hannibal Lectre, aside. His transformation is astounding, though as he becomes a monster, his emotions for his granddaughter never dwindle. Sometimes he reminds me of Goldblum's Seth Brundle in The Fly(1986), a tragic character caught in a nightmare, both reaching tragic, but powerful endings. He never becomes the villain, those are reserved for Brook and Perlman, who are likewise excellent. Brook is one creepy old guy, living in an isolated blue chamber, surrounded by hanging statues and a thin mist. He is the true monster of the piece, unrepetant and dangerous in his designs. Perlman, by contrast, is not really a villain, but is driven to violence by pressure and insanity, creating a wonderfully comic character and a playing the role of a real bastard by film's end.
Cronos won best director and best picture at the Mexican Academy Awards and was recognized at the Cannes film festival, yet it is still a largely underappreciated flick. Del Toro would go on to more famous heights with Pan's Labyrynth(2006) and the Hellboy films, but this is just as good, if not more deserving, of praise. Classic horror fans are the ones who really should open themselves up to this picture, which is one of the few of the last twenty years to really capture the mood and magic of what constitutes as gothic horror. For something different, yet vaguely familiar, this is the way to go for genre fans.