It should surprise absolutely no one that Guillermo del Toro loves monsters. Nobody in modern cinema is as adoring and earnest about the freaks of the underworld as del Toro, the man who took home the Best Picture Oscar for a film wherein a woman has red-hot sex with a fish-man. Some filmmakers take a few movies to get into their groove and discover the ideas they want to explore. Not del Toro. He knew who he was immediately.
One of a tiny handful of vampire films in the Criterion Collection, Cronos firmly established the sensibilities that would become del Toro’s instantly recognizable trademarks across the decades. His budgets may have increased, along with his status as a prestige darling, but his consistency of approach remains evident. Released in 1993, Cronos centers on Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi), an aging antiques dealer who discovers a scarab-like device that infects him with a form of vampirism. He grows more youthful, more energetic, and more sexual, but develops a thirst for blood and allergy to sunlight that frightens him. Meanwhile, a rich, dying businessman named Dieter de la Guardia has sent his brutish but abused American nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) out to retrieve the device in the hopes that it will spare him a brutal death.
Vampire films of the ’90s tended to lean more towards the baroque romanticism of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and Coppola’s lavishly feverish take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Cronos shares slivers of DNA with its contemporaries, but leans far more into the fairytale allure of the genre. For a vampire film, there’s not much blood on display here. No neck biting or stakes to the heart. The word “vampire” is never even used. Immortality is bestowed upon our unwitting protagonist via a mechanical device shaped like a golden bug. Of course, Jesús’s transformation into a monster is portrayed as an alluring tragedy, one with heavy religious imagery. As his flesh dulls to the palor of death, new skin underneath reveals a marble-like white glow, similar to the angel statue in which the device was hidden.
Fairy-tale themes and imagery are commonplace in del Toro’s works, particularly the Grimm-esque grandeur of Hellboy II: The Golden Army and the dream-like terrors of Pan’s Labyrinth. Here, however, that wonder is tempered by a decidedly religious force. It’s fitting, given that both are defined by tales of beauty tempered by terrifying consequences and overwhelming fear. In fairy tales and Christianity alike, one is always striving for goodness, even when the obstacles ahead have their appeal. As a quietly atheistic man raised in a fiercely Roman Catholic country, del Toro has been open about his conflicts over the church, particularly regarding his fiercely devoted grandmother. In Cronos, the sharp contrast between the glory of God and the terror of damnation is evident. Characters have names that translate to Guardian Angel and Grey Jesus, unsubtle but effective signals of their moral struggles. Dieter’s home is a clinically clean pseudo-hospital filled with shrink-wrapped angel statues. The film even takes place over Christmas. It is a true pact with the devil to use the device, which offers the pleasures of youth and vitality in exchange for the cruelty of a new hunger and inability to bathe in God’s life.
Vampirism is a common metaphor for addiction given the connotations of an inescapable hunger for something forbidden (Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction is a notable example). In Cronos, however, blood isn’t the drug but life itself. Dieter has spent decades of his life fighting (and, it is implied, killing) to find the device, rather than enjoy the years he has left. When he discovers what the device does, Angel laughs and declares, “That fucker does nothing but shit and piss all day, and he wants to live longer?” The desperate need to fight off death is certainly a relatable take on vampirism, one without the glamor or sensuality that so often defines the genre.
Jesús eventually chooses to die, martyring himself rather than poisoning his granddaughter Aurora with the savage reality of vampirism. The allure of more life is palpable – he is an old man with a younger wife and the carer of his very young grandchild, both perfectly justifiable reasons to want to stave off death – but not at the cost required of him. By the end, the line between man and monster has blurred, but del Toro has sympathy for both. Even monsters can love, and he certainly possesses more humanity than Dieter, who frequently beats his nephew with a cane. As he finds himself burning in the sun, Aurora ever-so-gently tucks him into her toybox, covering him with a blanket and handing him a doll for company. It’s a moment that echoes back to James Whale’s adaptation of Frankenstein, a key del Toro influence, wherein the innocence of a child anchors the monster, albeit with a far less tragic conclusion here than with Boris Karloff.
There’s no happy-ever-after here, not in the traditional sense, but the image of Jesús being allowed to die with dignity, in his bed and surrounded by his family as the sun rises, is a moment of redemption familiar in fairy-tales and morality plays alike. Still, del Toro is not here to judge, not so starkly. There are reasons for why monsters exist, and how even the most grotesque among them have living beating hearts like our own. Del Toro has spent the past thirty years letting the world know about that. Would that more people were willing to listen.