"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

DVD of the Week: Cronos: Criterion Collection

Cronos (1993) marked the auspicious feature film debut of Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and introduced the world to his unique worldview that fused his love of dark fairy tales with the macabre. The film was the culmination of Del Toro cutting his teeth on short monster movies where he learned how to do special effects and makeup effects himself. The film dominated Mexico’s equivalent of the Academy Awards and won the critics’ award at the Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately Del Toro’s film was a commercial failure at the box office despite positive notices from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Sun-Times. However, it was a launching pad, career-wise, for Del Toro who went on to make Mimic (1997) for Miramax, which was plagued with studio meddling, and the popular Hellboy films among many others.

Created in 1536, the Cronos Device is said to be the key to immortality. It attaches itself to the bearer and drains blood from them in return for eternal life – they become a vampire of sorts. For hundreds of years the scarab-looking device was in the possession of its architect. When he died it came into the possession of a kind, old antiques store owner by the name of Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi). An American businessman named Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman) has been looking for the device as his benefactor desires to become immortal. Of course, Gris messes with the device and is unable to resist its lure. He soon finds himself craving raw meat and blood – even going so far as to lick a small pool of it off a public bathroom floor! He also looks younger and not only has to worry about being taken over by the device but also has to watch out for Angel.

There is a wicked streak of dark humour that runs through Cronos reminiscent of the early films of Stuart Gordon or Roman Polanski and is not as prevalent in Del Toro’s more serious films, like The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), but surfaces in his more commercial work, like the Hellboy films. Cronos would mark the first time that he would work with actor Ron Perlman and he is quite good as a ruthless but somewhat inept businessman. They have gone on to collaborate on several subsequent films together with the actor serving as the director’s cinematic alter ego.

Cronos is one of the more subtle vampire films as Del Toro doesn’t show blatant vampire iconography until well into the film. At this stage in his career, he was still working out his themes and still deciding what his trademark motifs were to be. The narrative beats are different from his later films but in a good way. Del Toro makes fairy tales for adults and Cronos is a parable for several things, chief among them be careful what you wish for because you might just get it and it won’t be everything you thought it’d be. Not to mention achieving comes at an awful price as if Del Toro is saying that we are architects of our destruction.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by writer/director Guillermo del Toro. He explains that one of the primary inspirations for the film was alchemy, which he talks about in some detail. The filmmaker touches upon the colour scheme and why he used the ones that he did. Del Toro says that he wanted to create layers of vampirism – political, religious, and economic, etc. He also speaks knowledgably about filmmaking, history, mythology, literature and how they inform Cronos.

Also included is a commentary by producers Arthur H. Gorson, Bertha Navarro and Alejandro Springall. They provide a much more nuts and bolts approach – i.e. how they raised the money for the budget so that it would be independent of the studios thereby giving Del Toro total creative freedom. They also point out the themes in Cronos that he would continue to explore in subsequent films.

“Geometria” is a short horror film Del Toro made in 1987. A teenager is supposed to be studying for a geometry test but is more interested in the occult. He summons a demon and all hell breaks loose. In his introduction, Del Toro calls the film a silly idea and talks about how he was influenced by Italian horror filmmakers like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento.

“Welcome to Bleak House” features Del Toro taking us on a tour of his fascinating “man cave,” a house full of props and artifacts from his films as well as toys and books that he’s collected over the years. He has organized the house in a series of libraries. This is a film genre fan’s dream and one could easily spend hours exploring its rooms.

There is an interview with Guillermo del Toro. He sees Cronos as very important because it was where he first articulated his universe. He discusses some of the themes this film explores and how they resurface in later films. Del Toro talks about his intentions with this film as well.

Del Toro’s long-time cinematographer Guillermo Navarro is interviewed and recalls when he first started working with the director. He also touches upon when Del Toro approached him about making Cronos. Naturally, Navarro talks about his approach to the visuals.

There is an interview with actor Ron Perlman. He talks about how he got involved in the film. Del Toro sent him a fan letter and a copy of the screenplay, both of which impressed him. Perlman tells some funny stories about working on Cronos and with Del Toro.

Federico Luppi talks about working with Del Toro on Cronos. He speaks admiringly of the filmmaker while we see clips from the film and behind-the-scenes footage, including all sorts of makeup and gore effects being applied to the veteran actor.

There is an impressive stills galley featuring rare photographs and illustrations with captions written by Del Toro identifying them.

Finally, there is a trailer.



  1. Great choice for your DVD of the week J.D.

    I've always enjoyed Del Toro's work. I think my favorite commercial film by him has been Blade II.

    The man has an amazing touch and vision. There's no denying it. Yet, I can't quite pull the trigger on this film.

    I enjoy Perlman as well. Maybe I should see it soon. Along with the Devil's Backbone, it's one of the two I haven't seen by the artist.

  2. I'm normally staunchly against double dipping (I own the edition of Cronos with the cover that has the Cronos Device latched onto the throat of a topless woman. AKA the least representative DVD cover EVER) But rarely have I been so tempted.

    I love Del Toro and those extras sound amazing. Though it'd almost be worth it for that Mignola cover alone.

    Maybe at the next Barnes and Noble 50% of Criterion Sale.

  3. Great DVD review, J.D. I have the original disc release, but I'm getting this one for sure (in Blu-ray Disc). Like SFF said, "The man has an amazing touch and vision. There's no denying it." Thanks.

  4. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Thanks for the kind words. I'm a big Del Toro fan and as much as I like BLADE II, I've got to give it up for HELLBOY II as my fave commercial film by him.

    If you like PAN'S LABRINYTH, then you should like THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE. They certainly fit together thematically, visually, etc. almost like they exist in the same cinematic universe.

    Bryce Wilson:

    The Mignola cover is sweet. Depending on how much of Del Toro fanboy you are, this new edition is ALMOST worth picking up for the tour of his "man cave" alone. It is a great extra and I could listen to the man talk all day. Such an interesting guy!

    But yeah, if you can snag it during one of B&N's 50% sales, go for it.


    Thanks! I can only imagine how this film looks in Blu-ray. Even on regular DVD, the colors leap off the screen and you can definitely appreciate the Giallo influence on the visual look of this film - in terms of lighting, that is.

  5. Hey J.D.:

    Cronos is an inspired choice to cover here, and as usual, you've done a great job.

    I watched the film again (on VHS) not too long ago (while reviewing it for Horror Films of the 1990s) and its retains so much of its emotional and visceral power.

    On re-watch, I still find the film enormously affecting and absolutely gross at the same time. That scene in the bathroom, licking spilled blood off the floor, is authentically upsetting. My stomach gets upset just remembering it...

    But at the core of Cronos is this emotional idea of the family; and the family sticking together through thick and thin, through life and death, through blood and guts.

    The grandpa wants to live, for his granddaughter, but then the addiction to blood really subverts him and his original desire.

    And that ending...haunting!

    Thanks for posting this,


  6. I remember the day I took a train from Long Beach to Los Angeles just to see this -- and was disappointed. Great design and feel, but somehow uninvolving and cold. Your review will make me take another peek.

  7. John Kenneth Muir:

    Thank you for the kind words.

    Yeah, the bathroom scene is pretty nasty but, surprisingly, didn't gross me out all that much.

    But you are right about the theme of family. In one of the DVD extras, Del Toro addresses that at length and how it pops up in all of his other films.


    Yeah, you should take another look at it. While it's not my fave Del Toro film, I enjoyed it very much.