Saturday, 7 April 2007

Cronos (1993)


Cronos is Mexican director Guillermo del Torro's take on the Dracula legend, given a very different setting from that which you might expect, and with very much an 'art house' feel.

The budget may be low, but the ideas and the director's imagination aren't, despite this being his first film, and the end results give a refreshingly different take on the whole legend of eternal life sustained through blood-sucking vampirism.

So this would be a recommended rental from me, if it weren't for the very disappointing quality of the transfer on this DVD. Too often the quality is worse than a poor VHS recording, making this very much the poor relation to the other two releases in the Guillermo del Toro boxed set.

Please note that the ratings given in the 'At a Glance' box are for this disc alone, and not for the whole box set, which will be reviewed in its own right as part of the separate The Devil's Backbone review, scheduled to appear late in the day tomorrow (Sunday).

Federico Luppi and Tamara Shanath as Jesus Gris and grand-daughter Aurora before Jesus becomes infected by the Cronos device

The unsubtly named Jesus Gris, played by Federico Luppi, runs an antique shop and helps bring up his orphaned grand-daughter Aurora with the help of his wife Mercedes. On Christmas Eve he discovers a scarab-beetle like mechanical device which he activates, not realising that it is the work of a sixteenth century alchemist who appears to have discovered the secret to eternal life. The alchemist has lost the device and died when the building in which he lives collapses, causing a wooden stake-shaped wooden raft to pierce his heart.

A wealthy, terminally ill, industrialist Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook), has discovered the handbook to the device and has a hired henchman Angel (Ron Perlman) to search all the antique shops in Mexico in an attempt to find the device itself.

Jesus finds himself becoming addicted to using the device, discovering it appears to have a side-effect of giving him a more youthful appearance, but is eventually tracked down by the industrialist who warns him of the dangers of using the device without the instruction booklet. Angel ransacks Jesus' shop but is unable to find the device his master is prepared to pay a lot of money for.

At a New Year's Eve party Jesus finds himself thirsting for blood, just before Angel attacks him, and beats him to a pulp trying to discover the whereabouts of the Cronos device his employer wants. Accidentally killing Jesus, he stages a car accident to kill him but on advice from his employer gatecrashes the funeral to discover the body appears to have vanished just before a planned cremation. Thanks to the device Jesus has risen from the dead, and it's now up to him and his grand-daughter Aurora to stop the industrialist and his henchman getting their hands on the device to prolong their own lives. Will Jesus become the vampire of legend, or remain loyal to his grand-daughter, so desperate to help him remain alive?

Ron Perlman plays the thuggish Angel de la Guardia, who will help Jesus achieve his destiny

The religious analogies are fairly obvious, from the timing of the story, through the naming of the main character, his 'three day resurrection', and even down to the naming of the thuggish character who will ultimately help Jesus fulfill his destiny. However there are also some wonderfully subtle puzzles and clues left by del Torro, such as the thug's obsession to earn the money needed to have his nose changed through plastic surgery (many believe the soul leaves the body through the nose). De Toro's use of a mixture of pagean and religious icons and motifs make the film a fun one for trainspotters and film students alike.

The performances, particularly from Federico Luppi as Jesus, are excellent and Del Toro also shows he can get surprisingly good performances out of very young child actors, something that he has capitalised on with virtually every film he's made since. Although less mainstream than his other Spanish language movies, there's the same originality and intelligence on display here, with some wonderfully deft touches that belie the extremely low budget the film had at its disposal. This is not the Dracula story as most of us know it, and it's a much stronger film, if a tougher sell, as a result.

Although advertised as Del Toro's first Spanish language film - in fact his first film, full-stop - much of the dialog is spoken in English so this is not so difficult for English audiences averse to reading words on a screen to sit through as the director's later work that is also included in this box set.

Claudio Brook as the wealthy industrialist Dieter de la Guardia, desperate to get hold of the Cronos device

The film will probably be of most interest to film students keen to see where Pan's Labyrinth and some of the director's Hollywood movies (especially Mimic and Hellboy) actually came from. Where the director's other Spanish language movies are far superior to anything the director made when forced to compromise with Hollywood studio heads and 'the suits', Cronos is more on a par with those Hollywood films, feeling somewhat compromised in its delivery, mainly because of budgetary problems and inexperience.

The transfer to DVD is quite dreadful with little detail evident, and a picture that is so murky, muddy and soft one might think it had been sourced from a poor VHS transfer. There are terrible combing artefacts throughout, making the whole thing almost painful to watch on a big screen. This is not a DVD to show off your big screen TV!

Jesus finds the device has made him younger, but left him with some odd cravings

The DVD loses a couple of points for the appallingly bad picture quality, but wins them back for the extra's, which have been updated for 2006. An hour long interview with director/writer Guillermo del Toro covers all of his career, and gives a fascinating insight into how difficult making this film, and the one that followed it, was. The film may have cost very little but crippling bank interest charges, incurred when an American producer pulled out at the last minute, meant that the film went way over budget.

There is also an eight minute interview with Del Toro's cinematographer and friend Guillermo Navarro, but the stand-out extra is the director's commentary where Del Toro points out the different religious analogies he was making, revealing the often subtle clues that pepper the film as it progresses.

Available as a stand-alone 'Special Edition' release, currently available online for just £7.89 I'd steer clear of this release unless you already have both Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone. The boxed set contains a superior version of the next film in sequence, as well as a superb transfer of Pan's Labyrinth. Although Cronos is an interesting film, it is not in the same league as the films that were to follow, and given the very poor picture quality here this is one release you may want to check out as a rental rather than a purchase.

The Cronos device mixes the biological and the mechanical to achieve its results

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