Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
The secret of eternal youth
A region 1 and 2 comparison DVD review of CRONOS by Slarek
 

This review looks at both the Optimum region 2 Special Edition
and the Lion's Gate region 1 10th Anniversary Edition of the film.


With a few notable exceptions, the history and development of the vampire film is primarily rooted in two cultures, those of America and Britain. One explanation put forward for this is that the genre's origins stem largely from an English language novel first published in Victorian Britain, while the first officially sanctioned film adaptation of this novel was the very successful product of a Hollywood studio. I am talking, of course, about Bram Stoker's genetically seminal Dracula. Another, altogether more interesting suggestion is that the disproportionate popularity of the vampire movie in these two cultures is due to the level of sexual repression that exists within them. A society embarrassed by sex, that treats it censoriously, is far more likely to respond to the coded subtextual sexuality that is central to the vampire genre. This argument tends to hold water for a country that went into mass moral panic at a brief flash of Janet Jackson's nipple on prime time TV. A nipple. Here is a society that seriously needs to unfuck itself.

But the vampire itself has origins in almost every ancient culture, from Europe to Russia to China and beyond, and it still seems a little strange that these ancient tales have not had a bigger impact on the horror cinema of more countries than it has. In France, Jean Rolin made a string of openly sexual vampire movies in the late 1960s and both China and Japan have interestingly woven vampire elements to their action cinema and animated features and series. Very recently even Russian filmmakers have joined the fray, with Timur Bekmambetov's inventive twist on genre conventions, Night Watch [Nochnoy dozor]. So why not a Mexican vampire film? Why not indeed. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Cronos.

If you're a horror fan and you haven't heard of Cronos then you damned well should have. You should certainly know its director, Guillermo del Toro, a film-maker of considerable talent who subsequently made the less impressive but still interesting Mimic, the superb The Devil's Backbone, and one of the best mainstream sequels of recent years in Blade II, which also happens to be a vampire movie. And, as the DVD cover reminds us, he has also helmed the recent and for my money hugely disappointing comic book adaptation, Hellboy. Cronos was his first feature, his breakthrough film, a career launcher that is not only a smart take on a genre that you'd thought was almost thematically exhausted, but a damned fine horror movie in its own right.

Some plot. The ageing Jesús Gris lives in urban Mexico with his wife and his young granddaughter Aurora. The proprietor of a small antique shop, he one day discovers a small gold device hidden in a statue of an Archangel, which when activated attaches itself to his hand and draws blood. Although he quickly removes it, he is from that moment a changed man. He feels younger and fitter and his eyesight improves, but he also develops a taste for raw meat, a fascination for blood, and an overwhelming craving that can only be satiated by attachment to the Cronos device. The mechanism, we are informed, was created in 1535 by an alchemist in a quest for the secret of eternal life, and unbeknown to Gris, wealthy industrialist Dieter de la Guardia has been searching for it for years and will stop at nothing to get it.

The best vampire films both respect their generic heritage and bring something new to the form, and Cronos does both with considerable style. The prologue provides a direct link with tradition through the death of the creator of the device, speared through the heart when his workshop collapses around him. Later the transformed Jesús rises from the dead and is burned by shafts of sunlight, then takes refuge in a coffin-like toy box. There is no need to explain these elements to a modern audience, steeped as most of us are in cinematic vampire lore.

It's a similar story with the favourite generic themes of religion, addiction and sexuality, all three of which the film plays interesting games with. Here Christianity does not provide protection from the spread of vampirism, but a hiding place for the device that carries it, secreted within a statue of an archangel from which cockroaches emerge – read into that what you will. That the name of the lead character is Jesús Gris and that he is killed and resurrected provides further subtextual meat. Del Toro has a similarly skewed take on the sexual element, with Jesús nipping off to the bathroom to get a secret (and orgasmic) fix from the Cronos device, the masturbatory element of which is emphasised when his wife bangs on the door to enquire what he's up to. The film even inverts the view of vampirism as a fearsome threat by making it the object of desire for ageing, Howard Hughes-like business tycoon De la Guardia, who keeps his failed organs in jars and sees the Cronos device as his ticket to eternal life. Ah, we're back on Catholic ground.

But the film's most original take on the genre has to be the Cronos device itself, a wonderfully designed and suitably antique-looking mechanism that houses an insect that, rather than feeding on the blood of its victim, recycles it to filter out the chromosomes responsible for the ageing process. Its discovery by Jesús is a chance occurence, one that triggers a narrative with intriguing political overtones, as a small-scale Mexican shopkeeper suffers at the hands of an American conglomerate. It's a subtext that reflects del Toro's delight in role-reversing many years of Mexican bad guys in American films and his concerns over the impending North American Free Trade Agreement, illustrated in his depiction of a multi-cultural Mexico in which street signs, newspapers and packaging display a variety of languages and dialogue that freely switches between Spanish and English.

There is an almost instant engagement with both Jesús and Angel through a canny combination of performance and offbeat character detail. Veteran actor Federico Luppi plays Jesús with authority, dignity, and just the right degree of vulnerability, the humble, friendly shopkeeper who plays hopscotch with his granddaughter but is not afraid to stand up to the corrupt and powerful Dieter de la Guardia and his son Angel, despite the inevitable consequences. We know that his addiction to the Cronos device is self-destructive and that it will eventually lead him to serious harm, but Jesús himself is too likeable for us to distance ourselves from his plight. So much of this is down to Luppi's performance, which shines in the most offbeat moments: his prayers for protection before attaching the device to his hand; his hesitant fascination with the spilt blood in a ballroom rest room; the unbearable itching he feels beneath his bandage, so horribly well communicated that it had half the cinema scratching their arms and sucking air through their teeth when I first saw the film. It's similarly hard to initially dislike Angel (the always wonderful Ron Perlman), who is verbally and physically bullied by his overbearing father and preoccupied with the new nose that he regularly measures up for with templates he carries in his pocket. He's never really the bad guy, despite his later actions, more a disgruntled henchman who does his father's bidding but would happily watch the old man die at his feet. Even at the end it is big business and the thirst for power that comes across as the real villain – Angel is merely its tool and, ultimately, its victim.

Particularly interesting is Jesús's relationship with his granddaughter Aurora, which is clearly stronger and more meaningful than the one he now has with his wife. The two are like old friends, confidantes and partners in crime – the discovery of the Cronos device is jointly made and kept as their secret, despite the damaging effect it ultimately has on Jesús. Aurora watches worryingly as he takes his Cronos-fed fix and even tries to hide the device to protect him from harming himself. Later she is the only one who seems to instinctively understand what is happening and accept the resurrected Jesús as the man he one was, ignoring his rotted flesh, stapled head and on-backwards suit, watching over him while he rests in the toy box and standing by him when he returns to confront de la Guardia. She almost never speaks, but the two communicate on an almost spiritual level, and it is her simplicity of understanding and reasoning that we, as an audience, most clearly share, a viewpoint del Toro was to develop in Mimic and, most effectively, The Devil's Backbone.

It is this very relationship, which del Toro based on the one he had with his own grandmother, that provides a touching and very human core for what stands as a remarkably confident and inventive first feature, and one of the more potent and thoughtful takes on the modern vampire genre. And after the simplistic sound and fury of Hellboy, it's the kind of film I would be happy to see del Toro return to making.

vision

Both the Lion's Gate region 1 and the Optimum region 2 discs feature anamorphic 1.78:1 transfers, but there is a blatantly obvious difference in quality. The transfer on the Lion's Gate disc is largely first rate, coping well with the dark interiors, night-time exteriors and sometimes expressionist use of light, shadow and colour. Sharpness is good and shadow detail pleasing. The director's colour-coded sets, costumes and even hair are reproduced faithfully without over-saturation.

The region 2, however... Although we should remember that the film's previous UK DVD incarnation was a 4:3 print, this goes no way to excusing the shoddy NTSC to PAL transfer on the Optimum disk. Inferior in every way to the Lion's Gate transfer, it is darker, softer, lacking in any shadow detail (if it's in shadow, it's gone) and with sometimes less than faithful colour reproduction. Freezing the picture produces a telltale judder on movement. For picture quality, the Lion's Gate disc is an easy winner (the screen caps are all from this disc).

sound

There are two soundtracks available on both discs, stereo 2.0 and 5.1 surround. The stereo is decent enough, but the 5.1 is much nicer – it may not make dynamic use of the rears, but has a fuller, richer feel, with music and sound effects in particular – notably the clocks in the antique shop, the atmosphere at the new year party and the interior workings of the Cronos device, coming over very nicely.

subtitles

You just know something's amiss when we have a separate heading just for the subtitles. The dialogue in Cronos is a mixture of Spanish and English, and those of us not fluent in Spanish will need help with those portions of the film. It's at hand on both discs with clearly displayed and correctly timed optional English subtitles – the region 1 goes one better with the addition of optional subtitles for the hard of hearing, providing English subtitling for all of the dialogue and the sound effects. All well and fine, but there is the suspicion that the Hard of Hearing track was created first and then the Spanish Bits Only one was adapted from that by deleting all of the subs for the English language sections. The only thing is, they forgot to do likewise with the sound effect subs, so that in addition to dialogue translation we get distracting messages informing us of noises or music occurring off screen. Although infrequent, it is irritating. The region 2 wins this round.

extra features

First up, the Lion's Gate region 1 disc.

Pick of the bunch is a Commentary by writer/director Guillermo del Toro. As (almost) always with del Toro, this is both engaging and packed with background information on the film, covering the inspiration for the story and characters (a detailed explanation of alchemy is provided), technical aspects of shooting specific scenes, and even a breakdown of the thematic elements, which are more complex than you might realise. This is an essential companion to the film that covers a huge amount in the 94 minute running time and doesn't have a single dead patch. I particularly empathised with del Toro's suggestion that misfits should stick together – "Solidarity is the only possibility for human redemption."

There's a second Commentary, this time by producers Alejandro Springall, Bertha Navarro and Arthur Gorson. Springall and Navarro were recorded together, with Gorson's segments edited in. Like the film itself, this is a bilingual affair, with Springall and Navarro talking in Spanish and Gordon in English – subtitles are available, but cover all three participants. A lot less informative than del Toro's commentary, there is nonetheless some interesting stuff in here, but also quite a few dead patches, which increase in size and frequency as the film progresses. Springall and Navarro all but drop out at one point, but do pop back for a few words towards the end.

The Director's Perspective (13:58) is an interview with del Toro, conducted in English and with optional English and Spanish subtitles. He talks about the film, his journey from young film fan to special effects creator to director, his love of horror and comic books, and the genesis and construction of the Cronos device, which does repeat information given in the commentary. The most engaging inclusions are extracts from del Toro's early 8mm films, including one in which his mother plays a woman killed by a giant foetus.

Making of Cronos (5:25) is based around an interview with actor Federico Luppi about the film and peppered with behind-the-scenes footage. This is brief but interesting.

Photo Gallery presents 21 production and behind-the-scenes photos as if they are pages in the Alchemist's diary – pictures are angled and distorted to achieve this affect, which is irritating.

Art Gallery does the same for 10 original concept drawings done by del Toro. These would have been nice if presented properly.

There's also an Easter Egg. Well, sort of. On the main menu, press right on the remote to highlight a bar under the Lion's Gate logo and you get a reel of trailers for other Lion's Gate releases, but they do include one for Cronos (1:27).


And now the Optimum region 2 disc.

This also has a Commentary by Guillermo del Toro, a different one from that on the Lion's Gate disc, though it does cover much of the same ground and include a few of the same stories. There is still enough new stuff to be of interest to fans of the film, including the concept of 'living jewellery', the problems of test screenings and the American movie-making system, and the suggestion that the Mexican film industry is (or was) corrupt and controlled by a collection of little cinematic mafias. It also has another great del Toro quote: "I have learned more from pain than I have ever learned from success."

The Extended Interview with Guillermo del Toro (59:16) – extended from what is hard to say, but it runs for a good length and covers a lot of ground, from the director's early days with 8mm to his entry into professional filmmaking, plus a fair amount on the various influences on Cronos, which include Terence Fisher, Frankenstein, German Expressionism, David Cronenberg and Clive Barker. There's also plenty on the film itself, the casting, the selection of Guillermo Navarro as cinematographer, the music, the sound effects, the budget, and the general reaction to the finished film. There is some duplication with the commentary, and no cutaways to film extracts or stills, but del Toro is such an interesting guy that it's never dull for a second. The interview is conducted in Spanish with fixed English subtitles.

The Interview with Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (8:28), shot on the same spot as the del Toro interview, has the Cronos cinematographer describe how he got involved with the film, talk out the experience of working on it – which he refers to as dynamic and enriching – and what it's like to work with del Toro.

Making of Cronos (5:25) is the same as the one on the Lion's Gate disc.

There are Production Galleries of Sketches, Storyboards and Photographs from the film. Some of them are also on the Lion's Gate disc but are presented properly here, and there are more of them.

Trailer (1:26) is the same as the one on the Lion's Gate disc. No dialogue to hide the fact that this is partly in Spanish, which would scare off the anti-subtitle crowd.

Other Releases are trailers for four other Optimum DVDs, although one of them is The Devil's Backbone.

summary

Cronos remains one of the most fascinating of modern vampire movies and one of del Toro's most intriguing films. An auspicious debut, it opened the door to Hollywood for a man who continues to be suspicious of the methods employed to make and market films there, including his own. But it also led directly to what for me is his finest film to date, The Devil's Backbone, which was executive produced by Pedro Almodóvar after he saw and fell in love with Cronos.

Optimum's region 2 DVD release was one many of the film's fans had high hopes for after the cock-up on the subtitles on the Lion's Gate disc, but the picture quality really lets it down. The extras on both discs are good, with the extended interview on Optimum's DVD being the main draw there, although the far shorter one on the Lion's Gate disc does boast extracts from del Toro's early 8mm films. The del Toro commentaries are pretty much on a par with each other, and although the region 1 disc has a second commentary, there's a lot of waiting around for people to say something. In the end picture quality has to score over extras, and if you only get one disc then put up with the subtitle irritation and go with Lion's Gate.

Cronos

Mexico 1993
92 mins
director
Guillermo del Toro
starring
Federico Luppi
Ron Perlman
Claudio Brook
Margarita Isabel
Tamara Shanath

DVD details
region 1
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Spanish and English
subtitles .
English
Spanish
extras
Director's commentary
Producer's commentary
Director's perspective
Making of Cronos
Photo gallery
Art gallery
distributor
Lion's Gate

region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Spanish and English
subtitles .
English
Spanish
extras
Director's commentary
Interview with director
Interview with cinematographer
Making of Cronos
production galleries
Trailer
distributor
Optimum
review posted
1 March 2006

related review
The Guillermo del Toro Collection Blu-ray review

See all of Slarek's reviews