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1992, Dir. Guillermo Del Toro

Starring Federico Luppi, Claudio Brook, Ron Perlman.

A guest review by Iniquity Films British Correspondent Steve Barron!

Mexican director Del Toro has come up with a unique take on vampirism, religion, sin and the nature of life-and-death (heavy, man!). Cronos was his first movie; filmed in Mexico with mainly Spanish dialogue. Don’t be put off by this (quite a lot of the movie has English dialogue) or by the relatively sedate pace. Del Toro went to Hollywood for his next flick – the distinctly underwhelming Mimic. He returned to form with the recent Spanish dialogue The Devil's Backbone.

In Greek mythology, Cronos (ruler of the world) was a Titan - the son of the sky god and the earth goddess – until he was overthrown by his own son; the slightly better known Zeus.

It’s 1536 and an alchemist named Umberto Fulcanelli has foolishly got himself on the wrong side of that jolly bunch of liberal-minded Catholics popularly known as the Inquisition. He is forced to run for his life, eventually landing in Vera Cruz, Mexico. After securing a job as official watchmaker to the local despot, Fulcanelli turns his attention back to his rudely interrupted pet-project; the creation of a device that will bestow eternal youth on whoever uses it. Naturally there is a steep payment to be made for the chance of immortality. The device turns out to be a type of "mechanical insect" or an "organic machine" – a scarab-like contraption – the Cronos device.

Fast forward to 1937. A dying man (his heart has been pierced) with skin "the colour of marble in moonlight" is found among the rubble of a collapsed cellar in Mexico City – it’s the 400+ years old alchemist – his device obviously works, but does not appear to be infallible. After locating Fulcanelli’s own house, a search is ordered by the authorities and what they discover (bodies in the process of being drained of blood) is quickly covered up. The house and its contents are auctioned off, but no trace or mention of a device is ever found. In actual fact, Fulcanelli has cunningly hidden it in a base of an archangel statuette.

In present day Mexico City, antique shop owner Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) and his granddaughter are opening the shop, when a decidedly shifty looking bugger hurries in and begins examining religious statuettes. After being challenged by Gris he apologises and leaves. Later that day Gris is teaching his granddaughter a game when cockroaches begin to pour from a particular archangel. Intrigued, he looks inside and finds a strange golden contraption and when he begins messing around with it (lesson No. 1 – do not mess around with strange devices that are discovered by sheer chance) it springs talons which clamp his hand while a needle-like protuberance pierces his palm. Senor Gris is not amused and angrily shoves it in a box while he treats his wounded hand.

During the night Gris is awakened by a terrible itching on his palm and discovers he has a raging thirst and an irresistible compulsion for raw meat. Things continue in this vein (sorry!) for several days, until Gris realises he is beginning to look and feel younger – the only problem being that he must continue to use the device, which requires regular infusions of blood.

A few days later, Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman) strolls into the shop and promptly buys the same statuette. It turns out that Angel’s Uncle Dieter (Claudio Brook) is an immensely wealthy businessman who is terminally ill, but determined not to die. Dieter has Fulcanelli’s original book – written backwards, in Latin – which describes the exact conditions required to use Cronos successfully. Dieter lives in a hermetically-sealed room alongside some of his surgically removed internal organs – terrified of bugs and germs – a la Howard Hughes. He has been buying every archangel that comes to his attention in the hope of finding the mythical device. When he finally gets his hands on the correct statue, he is disappointed to say the least when he realises that someone else has beaten him to it.

Cronos’s storyline is compelling. The chance of eternal youth (and the very high price to be paid) torments both the good guy (Gris) and the black-hat (Dieter) equally. Gris is at first appalled by what is happening to him, but soon begins to appreciate the benefits. Dieter on the other hand, will stop at nothing in an attempt to breathe any sort of life into his disease-riddled body. Gris is basically a good egg who has accidentally set off a nightmarish chain of events, and the realisation that he is increasingly willing to pay what is required (other people’s blood, basically) in order to benefit from Cronos disturbs him greatly, but not enough to stop him. Dieter, with the arrogance of extreme wealth, cannot accept his imminent death. He has spent half a lifetime searching for Cronos and cannot bear the thought of falling at the last hurdle.

Cronos is so much more than a by-numbers vampire flick. Although containing some graphically violent scenes (one in particular, which a child witnesses, is gruesome stuff) it is definitely no gore-fest. It’s an atmospheric, highly effective chiller with many layers. Subtitles and a slowish early pace may well deter some potential viewers, but it’s well worth seeing through. Give it some time and attention and you may well be (un) pleasantly surprised.