Cronos (1993)

Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature, Cronos, is simultaneously similar and different from his most recent films: Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. While the great creativity and imagination is on display, there’s a subtle build, a quiet nuance to the way his stories unfold. It’s not until a good length into the movie that one begins to understand exactly what kind of monster movie del Toro is crafting.

And this is part of the delight of the film. We’re not sure why De la Guardia (Claudio Brooks) has his nephew, Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman) go to such great lengths to acquire the same statue over and over again. But it begins to make sense when Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), an antique dealer, discovers an unusual device in the base of one such statue, which begins a startling series of discoveries.

While del Toro has told better stories than the one told in Cronos, there’s something undeniably compelling about the way he presents this story. By creating a constant sense of mystery throughout the film, it becomes one of those rare horror films where we are just as confused and unsure as the cast of characters. Even though we’re able to follow them all and get information that makes more sense than each individual has, we’re still unable to piece it altogether until a good ways into the film.

Along the way, del Toro’s creative style is at work. The prologue lays on the mythos a bit thick, in part due to bad voiceovers, but as the film progresses there’s that resident uncanny monster design throughout the film. Everything is strongly tied to something familiar we see all the time, but with a dark, sinister twist that makes it simultaneously beautiful and grotesque.

Unfortunately, the film is marred by horrendous audio. Beyond the fact that it clearly sounds like something produced in a sound stage, it lacks the immediacy, the visceral impact, the fidelity to make the horror audibly unnerving. Sound is often essential to the horror film aesthetic and without the clear feedback, Cronos suffers in many scenes.

The film also asks the audience to endure a horrendous score. This could be a throwback to certain European horror films which had some strangely out of place scores, creating a slight dissonance, but Cronos never achieves this effect. It’s the kind of score that sounds like something one might produce quickly on a computer while fiddling about, more of an afterthought than a deliberate choice. The music adds little to the mood and would be best if simply removed altogether.

Del Toro also has some not so subtle religious overtones throughout Cronos. It’s clear that he chose the name Jesus Gris in order to craft a kind of dark parody of the Jesus Christ character. While it’s provoking, there’s not a particular end to it. It seems something more seeped in personal distain than any intellectual or creative thought, a rather ironic play as he’ll create another Christ-like protagonist in his film Pan’s Labyrinth.

As a debut feature, Cronos shows a lot of potential and certainly has the indelible stamp of del Toro in the interesting design and look of the film. The core concept is compelling and the storytelling creates a palpable sense of intrigue, but the end product is marred by production quality problems. This certainly doesn’t ruin the film, but it is a strong mar on a fantastic film.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing