Blood, sweat… and tears

Guillermo del Toro’s classic Mexican horror debut, Cronos, will bite you where it hurts


La Invención de Cronos (Chronos, Mexico)
Guillermo del Toro
1993 (Spanish with English subtitles), CNCAIMC, Fondo de Fomento a la Calidad Cinematográfica, Iguana, IMCINE et al.
94 minutes

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

LATAMROB rating: ****

JUDGING BY his films, Guillermo del Toro’s mind is a fascinating labyrinth of monsters, fears, high technology obsessions and grey matter. He certainly has worked hard to have gained his status as a cult director. However, the making of Cronos, his first film and now regarded a classic, was not easy.

A film junkie from childhood and enamoured with horror films and the making of sci-fi props as an adult, Del Toro carried out the whole enterprise only with the aid of an assistant and his own wife.

The script was nothing like other Mexican screenplays at the time, and feeling that this first movie could be his last he chucked in everything he had: his own savings, his car and his house.

Nobody is a prophet

Initially there was very little faith in Cronos in Mexico, where the authorities who regulate the industry complained that it was not an art film and so Del Toro should seek private funding.

When the director insisted that a vampire movie could be art, they decided that they should see the storyboard, then later the whole product, and it took him three years to secure the right funding. And when they finally saw the finished product they claimed that the film would not win any festivals.

To repeat the old refrain, nobody is a prophet in their own land. Cronos was created in a country fascinated by blood, death and resurrection, and is now rated internationally as one of the most original films to have come out from Mexico.

Del Toro weaves the tale of a golden mechanical device taken to Mexico by a Spanish alchemist in 1535 crafted in the form of a scarab that fits in one’s hand and injects a magical fluid giving eternal life to whoever possesses it.

In 1997 this device is found by Jesus Gris, (Luppi), an antiques dealer, inside the base of an old statue. Gris was ignorant of the fact that the beautiful object was fed by human blood until he is bitten, and becomes obsessed as he begins to feel its effects without realising that his very soul is in now danger. Gris’ adored six year old granddaughter becomes the keeper of the scarab… enough said!

Dieter de la Guardia (Brook), a cruel man who has bound his nephew Angel de la Guardia (Perlman) into a relation of complete dependency, and whose days are numbered due to illness, longs to possess this object and will do anything to get his hands on it.

Believing Angel is simple, Dieter sends him on a quest to find the device. But when the brutish Angel learns what the device can do, he hopes to free himself forever from Dieter and at the same time make the scarab work for him.

Guillermo del Toro, a craftsman himself, manages to recreate in Cronos an old-fashioned, gothic atmosphere, tempered by the addition of touches such as neon signs, creating a film that could have been a 1930s American cartoon. Yet it always remains understood that the action happens in Mexico.

The special effects are excellent, all made by “Necropia” – Del Toro’s own monster and make up FX company (which is now defunct). From the moment the beautiful golden wonder first sinks its sting into Gris’ flesh, we can almost feel the pain and ecstasy that the magic serum brings to his ageing character. The machine seems to come to life because of how it moves and sounds on the screen.

Despite the obvious giveaway names: Jesús Gris, Angel de la Guardia, Aurora Gris, this film manages to reveal that each of the characters has both light and dark sides. It also plays with the ironic vampiric relation of dependency between (oh dear!), the USA and Mexico, as the film is set after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was implemented.

It is no surprise that in 1993 Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos won the Mexican Golden Ariel Award for best director, best first work, best original story, best production design, best screenplay and best special effects, and the DICINE award at the Guadalajara Mexican Film Festival. These prizes were followed by a host of international awards giving due recognition to this work. At Cannes he was awarded the Mercedes-Benz Award and in 1994 he won the Silver Raven for Best Director at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film. Federico Luppi was awarded as Best Actor at the Film Festival International Fantasy Film Awards, and Daniel Giménez Cacho (the morbid guy working at the funeral directors making-up corpses) as Best Actor in a Minor Role at the 1993 Sitges-Catalonian International Festival. The film and its actors eventually clocked up 21 wins and two nominations.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer