Cronos is the first feature film of Guillermo del Toro, better known for his later mind-bending fantasies Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. Del Toro was originally chosen by Peter Jackson to direct The Hobbit trilogy, but couldn’t do it, due to extended delays. So he’s a top tier director, an auteur, as the French say. He was only 29 when he made Cronos, yet it has been hailed as one of the greatest horror films and one of the best Spanish language films, and has a rating of 91% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. Empire Magazine called it a “unique, terrifying mini-masterpiece.”
At this point I need to admit that it is less a cannibal film than a vampire one. Now I have nothing against vampires, some of my best friends are vampires (probably), but a cannibal should really be alive rather than undead, IMHO. This one is so good, though, that I’m giving it a run on the cannibal blog. Apologies to the cannibal purists.
There is also a link to #cannibalism, because the undertaker (yes, even immortals sometimes need undertakers) is Tito (Daniel Giménez Cacho), in a prequel role for the great cannibal movie We Are What We Are, in which he was the coroner who found a finger in the dad’s stomach. You’d have to watch it – it’s worth it.
Anyway. Gothic movies usually start off a few centuries in the past, because old magic is just – better. This one has a 14th century alchemist inventing a device which looks like a Faberge egg with claws. The device sticks its claws into whomever happens to pick it up and an insect inside (species yet to be determined) injects something (IDK – vitamin C? Testosterone?) which makes the person immortal. Centuries later – in the present – an earthquake reveals the dead alchemist. Well, he was immortal, but the earthquake caused a stake to pierce his heart, which is not ideal if you’re a vampire (or anyone else really). The egg is in a statue of an archangel, which is the first of a string of religious symbols (hey, it’s Spanish, OK?)
The statue ends up with antique dealer, Jesús Gris (played by the wonderful Federico Luppi who was one of Guillermo del Toro ‘s favourite actors and was also in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth). Gris and his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) extract the egg, wind it up and it plunges its stingers into him.
There’s some blood and pain, sure, but he finds he is getting younger, and heals much faster. You laugh a little, you cry a little, but then there’s another problem – he develops a longing for human blood.
There’s also a dying businessman (Claudio Brook, The Exterminating Angel and several other films of Luis Bunuel) who really wants the Cronos Device. His American nephew (Ron Perlman, Hellboy and Sons of Anarchy) is brought in to seek out the device by any means necessary (some of which are quite nasty). He puts up with his uncle, because he is named in the will, but wait, if uncle is immortal…
What would you do to defeat death, to live forever?
As Roger Ebert observed, there are some real religious issues explored here – the battle of good and evil, love (for Gris’ wife and granddaughter) being more powerful than greed, and particularly the unshakeable belief in divine afterlife. What happens to that hope if you never die? And what if that extended life requires eating flesh and drinking blood? Would you risk hell to avoid going to heaven? When little Aurora cuts her hand, Jesus has to decide if his thirst is really worth drinking his granddaughter’s blood.
Of course, that assumes that drinking blood is somehow essentially evil. Tell that to a mosquito.
Jesus Gris is, like any good vampire, likely to start smoking ominously if he finds himself in the sunshine. But can his goodness overcome the vamp issues? Well he dies and comes back to life, reborn in a glowing white skin, he takes many savage beatings, saying that he can handle the pain, then he smashes the egg, declaring
Jesus Gris – translates to English as “the Grey Jesus”. He is the suffering servant, who died and came back to life. There is a lot of that in Spanish films, but this one has an added twist:
Yes, he wants blood. Could that be a backhander to the Church? Religion can motivate good deeds, or suck the blood of the devotees. The Eucharist is all about transubstantiation – the wine and wafer are believed (by some) to be literally the blood and body of Christ. Hannibal is full of it, particularly the resurrection of Mason Verger and his attempt to eat Hannibal. It’s the eternal paradox.
Cronos won the grand prize in the Critics’ Week at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and nine Mexican Academy Awards, including best picture and director. It has an enviable 91% “fresh” on the Rotten Tomatoes website. The Criterion Blu-ray edition is available at Amazon. The soundtrack is superb, by the acclaimed Mexican composer Javier Álvarez. Highly recommended.
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NEXT WEEK: One of the most controversial cannibal films of all time: Joe D’Amato’s Antropophagus.