by MATTHEW SORRENTO
Guillermo del Toro has discussed how his childhood helped mold his imagination – being raised in a stern Roman Catholic family only fueled his dark fantasies. His great-aunt, a prevalent influence and caregiver, forbade him from drawing gothic and grotesque images, encouraging his passion to grow. These fantasies would become essential to his career as one of our most visually inventive storytellers.
Cronos (1993), his debut feature film made in Mexico, is a case in point. The film concerns the ordinary life of an aging antiquities dealer who stumbles across something curious: a statue containing a device that pierces, then rejuvenates. The”Cronos device” is a golden scarab that comes to mechanized life with metallic legs, though the contraption actually contains a withering insect, perhaps needing human blood to keep itself alive. The sting also brings perpetual youth to the victim – in the form of something akin to vampirism. Of all the archetypal monsters, the vampire gets reworked the most. Of course, it originated in myth and folklore, but also serves our contemporary sense of the uncanny: i.e., a repressed fear that may return whenever a setting or moment warrants it. (Consider times we think we see a stalker from a distance, though he really exists in our imagination.) We want to keep capitalizing on the uncanny; hence, the vampire can be successfully revised – as long as new takes don’t overturn the myth: what teen exploitation entries like the Twilight series do.
Del Toro uses everlasting, vampiric life as a quest for power – or, in the case of Jesus Gris (the antiques dealer, played by Federico Luppi), an accidental acquisition. As a caregiver to Aurora, his granddaughter, Gris wants to remain with her. She, in turn, desires his constant love once he appears dead. When Gris is transformed by the Cronos, his undead existence becomes a thing of fairy tales, also at the root of del Toro’s aesthetic. In keeping with the motif, villainy soon appears, in the form of a greedy mogul (Claudio Brook) once bitten and in need of the Cronos’ bites to remain with the living. His crony/nephew, Angel (a casually loathsome Ron Perlman), goes after Gris and triggers the film’s crisis moments, mostly set on high peaks overlooking the city – as if to tempt the vampiric Gris to take flight, even if he hasn’t been granted this supernatural boon. Angel becomes less of a threat than Gris’ own need for blood, which he realizes will jeopardize his relationship with Aurora. The truly child-bound perspectives of The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) are still to come, though the film offers hints of del Torian wonder.
As the first in del Toro’s putative trilogy – followed by Backbone and Labyrinth, that sublime take on myth/fantasy meeting history – Cronos doesn’t satisfy as its creator’s best. At times, it seems as if del Toro’s ready to veer into the absurdist territory of Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead (aka Dead Alive) – especially when Gris licks blood off a bathroom floor – though the del Toro’s effects are more subtle. The fissure of darkness coming from this tale’s Pandora’s Box portends the beauty that would come in del Toro’s later films.
The new Criterion set (also available in Blu-Ray) is an absolute must for fans of the filmmaker and of fantasy in general. Not only does it contain Geometria (1987), del Toro’s early short film (a comic pastiche of Italian horror, complete with the saturated reds and blues), but also a featurette called “Welcome to Bleak House,” a tour of del Toro’s house-sized office, actually a museum of books, historical treatises, toys, artwork, and the director’s sundry creations. Down-to-earth and self-deprecating, he refrained from assigning the rightful name to it: del Toro’s Labyrinth. The video tour may feel like a tease, as it reveals a collection we myth and fantasy buffs can only dream of visiting.
More broadly, del Toro’s insight and charm appears throughout the package, in its collection of commentaries and interviews with himself and other cast and crew members. We will always let him dream for us.