Guillermo del Toro's debut feature, Cronos (1993) is overflowing with the kind of wild, intelligent, genre-bending invention seen in the early works of Joe Dante, John Landis, and Sam Raimi. Del Toro's target here is the vampire film, and what fascinates the director is not the bloodsucking, or the kinky sexual undercurrent that often goes along with it, but the promise of eternal life, attained through the use of the eponymous "Cronos Device." Invented by an alchemist in the 16th century, the object is a gold-encrusted scarab beetle with sharp metal legs that pierces the user's skin, draws out their blood, and injects a fluid that instills in them a renewed vigor. When the device falls out of its inventor's possession after 400 years of service, it ends up in the hands of Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), a kindly antiques dealer who whiles away the day in his dusty shop playing hopscotch with his doe-eyed granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath). Unbeknownst to Jesus, the artifact is being desperately sought by a dying industrialist, Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook), who is confined to a hermetically sealed chamber in his factory, and who thus sends his hulking son Angel (Ron Perlman) to purchase the statue in which the device is hidden. Jesus, however, has not only already discovered it he has inadvertently used it, thus starting an irrevocable cycle of addiction to its restorative powers. De la Guardia realizes this and tries to bargain with Jesus, but the old man greedily holds onto his fountain of youth, forcing the industrialist to send Angel to retrieve the device by force. What's wonderful about del Toro's narrative in Cronos is how he kills the aptly named Jesus at the film's midpoint, taking him to the mortician's slab and the brink of cremation before re-animating him for the climax where he must finally confront de la Guardia. Even better, the director doesn't shy away from the grisly details of that process, which means Jesus proceeds throughout the rest of the movie with staples in his forehead and the crude, chalky blush of an open-casket corpse. Though there is a good deal of humor in the picture, it is deftly offset by the mounting sadness of Jesus's condition, made all the more heartbreaking when seen through the eyes of the adoring Aurora. Jesus's corruption seems an awfully heavy price for the innocent curiosity that led him to inadvertently engage the device, but, as the story draws to a close, it becomes clear that del Toro has no intention of granting the poor old man a reprieve. This is the same brand of unremitting fatalism that has made his subsequent works, The Devil's Backbone (2002) and even the for-hire Blade 2 (2003), so refreshing. As a first film, Cronos is far from perfect; too often, the characters act illogically just to advance the plot, while del Toro's fascination with his grotesque embellishments don't always serve the story. But these are far from crippling missteps. What matters most is the picture's vivid imagination, which is all too rare in an era of knock-off studio slasher flicks. Lions Gate presents Cronos in a fine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a commentary from del Toro and one from his producer (in Spanish, but with subtitles), a "making-of" featurette, a "Director's Perspective" wherein del Toro discusses his influences and development as a filmmaker, and photo and art galleries. Keep-case.
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