Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
It’s October, so you know what that means: it’s time for some horror movies! If you’re like me, you actually probably watch a good number of horror movies throughout the year, especially in a year where two gems like The Innkeepers and Cabin in the Woods both came out in the spring. But I’ve always enjoyed horror movies, even if I don’t really find myself with the opportunity to write about them very often.
That changes in October. Criterion Cuts, already one of my more fluid projects, puts on a witch hat and douses itself in fake blood to take up all five October Mondays with an array of spooky, scary, or thrilling selections from the Criterion Collection. As you might expect, that’s going to be an eclectic set of movies, but that’s the joy of horror: the array of what is scary or unsettling is so vast that to delve into it will take you through all genres and the entire history of film, as even our earliest films endeavored to elicit that most primal emotion—fear.
I’ve always said that the thing that separates a good horror movie from a great one isn’t the effects, or the pacing, but whether the movie bothers to make you care about the characters involved in the story. It seems like such a simple thing to do, but lo and behold the entire genre is littered with movies that rest upon the laziest stereotypes or follow scores of unlikable characters into the void. There’s very little room for even a shred of empathy, much less people you actually like and want to root for.
Which is where Guillermo del Toro comes in. The Mexican filmmaker has a history in dealing with the horror genre that is defined not only by a great visual sense for effects, but by an understanding that at their best these effects need to underline the emotional content of his films. This is apparent in his bigger, well known films like Hellboy (still one of the better ‘superhero’ movies of the modern era) and the wonderfully dark fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth. But it was also, apparently, something he knew and understood from the very beginning—his small Mexican feature debut, Cronos.
Opening with the legend of a 16th century alchemist who discovered a machine that would extend human life perpetually, the movie quickly leaps forward to the near present, where the device (the Cronos) has been lost in a building collapse in the 1930s which revealed not only a strange, pale, incredibly ancient body in the rubble, but signs that people had been murdered and their blood drained. But the Cronos itself? Lost to legend, supposedly. Until one day, antiques dealer Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) discovers that one of the statues in his shop is not only hollow, but contains a strange device inside of it. Fiddling with it, the device seemingly attacks him, clinging to his hand and stabbing him with a needle of some sort. Worried about the safety of his young granddaughter Aurora (Margarita Isabella), he seals the device away for later study.
The device, of course, reveals itself to be the Cronos. It looks like a golden scarab, with clockwork designs on the outside and a gem that when turned, activates the mechanism. The legs unfold from the carapace, gripping onto whatever it’s stuck to, and then a lengthy needle rises up from the back and injects itself into the victim/subject. And inside, shown in cutaways, is some sort of strange, infernal insect nestled between all the gears and seemingly mystical fires, which uses its own bodily fluids to inject into the human body to affect the change into an immortal being. It’s gross, fascinating, and strangely elegant: the perfect mixture of arcane art and good old fashioned creature horror.
Jesús finds this out in bits and pieces. He wakes up the next day feeling younger and more energetic than he did before, the wounds from the Cronos already healed. At the same time, a gangster named Angel (Ron Perlman) shows up at his shop looking for the device, asking about the statue in a way that tips him off that people know that the device exists and that he might have it. Curious, Jesús uses the Cronos again, and notices that he’s visibly growing younger, wrinkles and years melting away.
Jesús isn’t the only one who notices, however, and Angel shows up to not only toss the shop, but to bring Jesús to his uncle Dieter (Claudio Brook), a rich dying man who has been seeking the Cronos for years. It’s here that the history of the device is revealed, and Dieter warns him that it exacts a terrible price for its gift of vitality. But since Jesús refuses to reveal where he hid the Cronos, Dieter lets him go, instructing Angel to follow him to find it. His problem gets worse, to the point that he finds himself in the men’s room of a party, climbing down in a suit to lick blood spilled from a wounded man. Whatever is happening to him from use of the Cronos, it is changing his very behavior. There’s no time to be concerned for this, as Angel (who thinks he knows where the Cronos is) grabs him and throws him in his car, pitching Jesús off a cliff to his death, victim of a supposed car crash.
It’s this death of the hero that really pushes the movie into something special. What had been a creepy, lighthearted sort of body horror film suddenly goes full strange as the supposedly dead Jesús is taken to the funeral home where they prep his body only for him to wake up on the crematorium conveyor belt and climb out of the coffin. Injured, but seemingly not too put out by his death, Jesús wanders home in his cut up funereal suit, pulling off the mortuary putty that hid his wounds to reveal shockingly pale skin. His transformation seems to have only been sped up by his supposed death, and now he stumbles home, realizing he’s increasingly sensitive to bright lights and constantly thirsting for blood.
At this point, I suppose it behooves me to call Cronos what it is: a vampire movie. But unlike most vampire movies, what unfolds isn’t the angst of being undead but a strangely warm tale of Jesús and his granddaughter Aurora, who is waiting for him when he comes home with a towel to wipe off the dried blood and makeup. It’s her witnessing this transformation, quiet and wide-eyed and devoted to her charming and loving grandfather, that really makes the movie special. When Jesús returns home, he doesn’t even tell his wife he’s still alive, just letting Aurora lead him to a box shaped like a coffin she’s made up with blankets and stuffed animals to keep him company. The consideration of this little girl makes turning into a vampire less horrible and more absurdly strange, something to be dealt with but simply part of the fabric of this strange magical truth they find themselves in.
As the movie heads towards the collision between Angel and Jesús over the fate of the Cronos, then, the movie ends up fully embracing this strange monster-and-child tale as Jesús and Aurora make up an unlikely pair, a girl and her vampire versus the very real monster of Angel with his physically immediate, violently assertive presence. And anyone looking at del Toro’s filmography at this late date can see, writ large, the obvious fact: this is in many ways the exact same dynamic that he explored more extremely in Pan’s Labyrinth. In this movie, that sort of dark fairy tale of a child navigating a situation full of deep magic and danger is much less vicious than the bleak wartime drama that Pan’s Labyrinth turned into, but it still manages to have that sense of peril that feels just this side of unreal before things actually go bad, an encapsulation of the childhood belief that nothing bad really can happen until everyone’s standing around a tragedy, wondering what happened.
And it’s that theme of danger, wrapped in the warmth of childhood, that really speaks to the best of del Toro’s work: a sense of adventure that seems often borderline comical right up until it hits the unyielding truth that these magics are dangerous, the creatures are real, and the monsters will drag people screaming into the night. That’s always been a firm foundation in del Toro’s films, and I expect even as he embraces more mainstream genres of film, that isn’t about to change.