Cronos

1994, Movie, R, 92 mins

Review

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Without all the pre-release hype for INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, the Mexican-made CRONOS, an offbeat and in some ways, more daring variation on vampirism, might have gained more US attention. After winning a number of awards (including the Ariel, the Mexican Academy Award), this stately horror tale paid a too-brief visit to American screens.

The Cronos device is a beetle-shaped ornament crafted by a 16th-century alchemist to gain immortality. It worked for its pasty-faced creator until 1937, when a timber pierced his heart after a roof collapse. Sixty years later a moldering, bug-infested statue from the alchemist's estate arrives in the shop of kindly old antique dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi). While cleaning the figurine, he finds the pear-sized Cronos device hidden within and inadvertently becomes its master--and slave. For sealed inside the golden shell is an ageless insect parasite, positioned to plunge its needle-like proboscis into anyone holding the device. Thus bitten, Jesus feels markedly younger and more virile. He also suddenly hungers for raw meat and blood. Soon Jesus allows the Cronos device to feast upon him regularly, as his adoring eight-year-old granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) watches with dismay.

But another man covets the Cronos: wealthy, dying recluse Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook), who has the alchemist's journals explaining how the parasite's secretions during feeding grant life everlasting to a host who maintains a diet of blood. De la Guardia sends his burly nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) to obtain the device by any means necessary. Angel ends up killing the antique dealer--except that by now Jesus is already undead, and awakens in the mortuary, badly stitched together. Despite his grotesque face, Gris is granted shelter by his dear Aurora, and sleeps in her coffin-like toy box by day, with the Cronos device secure in a stuffed animal. At night they confront Dieter, hoping the alchemist's notes can undo this curse of immortality. But there is no cure, and Jesus cannot stop himself from drinking the billionaire's blood. Angel tries to kill Gris a second time; they both go over the roof of a building, and only the old man, of course, revives. When he feels the bloodlust tempting him to attack even Aurora, he smashes the Cronos device. In a final, ambiguous scene, Jesus lies at home surrounded by loved ones. Mutated by the parasite, his body glows marble-white like a transfigured saint--or a giant grub.

Though major plot points can be predicted with disappointing ease, CRONOS sagely eschews such longtime cliches as long teeth, bats, garlic, cemeteries, crucifixes, and Transylvanians; perhaps most radically, it spurns the ever-so-marketable sex that pervades modern vampire tales (you wouldn't know that from the disrobed blonde on the US videocassette version, though). Its premise is as old as Faust: what price would you pay to live forever? Even with the rather portentous religious symbolism, Jesus Gris (rhymes with Jesus Christ in Spanish) and his fall from grace are rendered in an elegantly understated, quietly horrific manner. When he drops on all fours in a public lavatory to lick a bloodstain off the tile, the real awfulness is the elegant gent's abrupt loss of dignity, and his gradual transformation into the luminously pale creature shown at the end echoes Jeff Goldblum's metamorphosis in Cronenberg's THE FLY. Except Jesus Gris develops no wall-crawling superpowers or the conventional celluloid vampire's increased strength; he's just tragically lost the ability to die and gained a monstrous addiction.

Federico Luppi, a distinguished Argentine thespian, provides the afflicted hero with rare pathos and humanity. Other members of the small ensemble reap the rewards of an intelligent script. Perlman, best known from TV's "Beauty and the Beast," gets to show considerable humor and style in what could have been a standard thug role, and child actress Shanath is quietly effective as the eerily self-possessed granddaughter. Claudio Brook's villainous turn hits the mark as a sort of macabre Howard Hughes. First-time writer/director Guillermo del Toro originally had Max Von Sydow in mind for the part, but went with local talent as a cost-cutting measure. Still, CRONOS, at $2 million, was one of Mexico's most expensive motion pictures ever, the cost reflected not so much by epic scope and visuals as in polished production values and careful design. Del Toro (a 29-year-old and already an author of a book on Hitchcock) winks at the silly cheapo chillers in Mexico's past via a mortician's wall posters of Santo the Blue Demon and other masked wrestlers who once grappled ridiculously with the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Aztec Mummy. (Violence, profanity, adult situations.) leave a comment

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