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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
up, the Lion's Gate region 1 disc.
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."
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.
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.
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
Gallery does the same for 10 original concept
drawings done by del Toro. These would have been nice if
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.
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.
of Cronos (5:25) is the same as the one on
the Lion's Gate disc.
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
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.
Releases are trailers for four other Optimum
DVDs, although one of them is The Devil's Backbone.
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.
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.