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October Challenge – Cronos

3 min read

Cronos isn’t only one of Guillermo Del Toro’s finest films; it’s also the proverbial Rosetta Stone of his work, the key to understanding every other film he has made since. A kind of visual declaration of self, it explores the key concerns that dominate his career – religion; innocence and experience; the struggle of remaining true to the one’s ideals in the face of fascism and control – and is filled with the images that haunt his work like phantoms. It is, as noted critic Mark Kermode put it, a masterpiece, a horror film unlike any other.

As with Pan’s Labryinth, Cronos combines traditional elements of the horror mythos with modern touches. That said, whereas the former film saw him take on the legend of the faun, the latter sees him engage with the vampire narrative in a thrilling way. Rather than glamorise his central bloodsucker, the stately Jesus Gris (brilliantly played by Federico Luppi), Del Toro humanises him, injecting pathos and very genuine tragedy into the proceedings. Vampirism isn’t equated with power in Del Toro’s world; indeed, the opposite is true. The burden of eternal life, placed upon Gris by an ancient clockwork device, becomes increasingly significant as his body, mind and even his soul all begin to fall apart.

Cronos Insert

That said, despite the darkness of the film – and it is dark: there is a significant and blackly comic sequence that takes place in a mortuary – as ever, Del Toro weaves it with light. At its heart, Cronos is concerned with the love between Gris and his granddaughter, the almost entirely mute Aurora. Aurora doesn’t only look like Ofelia, the hero of Pan’s Labyrinth, she shares that character’s innocence, and as in Pan’s Labyrinth her optimistic world view has more power and weight than one might initially suspect.

“I always thought that alchemy, Catholicism and vampirism were somewhat linked,” Del Toro has said of the film. And it’s true; one of Cronos‘ many interesting subtextual threads is the idea that stories from the Bible have a profoundly anatomical basis, and in a striking monologue, Dieter De La Guardia compares the act of Christ walking on water with a mosquito’s similar ability. Del Toro isn’t reducing Catholicism by making this link; indeed, he’s imbuing it with a new power by revealing it to be full of stories vested in the visceral. Things that are considered mythic or legendary are real in Del Toro’s world: often painfully real.

The performances are uniformly excellent, with Ron Perlman in a standout performance as Angel de la Guardia. In the hands of a less accomplished actor, de la Guardia could have been a flat, one dimensional antagonist, but Perlman gives the role weight and sensitivity. We don’t hate de la Guardia, not even in the film’s latter half, when his uncle forces him to engage in some very unscrupulous activity. The fact that we care about him in the same way that we care about Gris adds an additional layer of tension to the proceedings; there are no real ‘villains’ in the piece, just as there are no heroes, meaning every action is fraught with moral complexity. Even de la Guardia’s uncle, Dieter, the figure whose greed sets the plot in motion, is not evil, per se, and his actions are ultimately motivated by some very human factors.

Indeed, that is possibly the best way to describe Cronos: it’s human. As with all very great horror movies, it is interested in nothing less than the human soul; concerned wholly with the nature of human thought and mortality. In that way, as in many others, it is a tremendously important film.