Review originally appeared in 2011.
When I reviewed Let the Right One In in 2009, I brought up four really great vampire movies (of which Let the Right One In would be a fifth): Martin, Near Dark, Nosferatu, and Shadow of the Vampire. It's time to add another film to that list; Guillermo del Toro's directorial debut, Cronos. Like the other films listed, Cronos is a non-traditional vampire tale, a story centered around immortality with a price, one that touches briefly on addiction and centers - as many of del Toro's finest films do - around a child.
The girl in question, Aurora Gris (Tamara Shanath), lives with her grandparents: Grandmother Mercedes (Margarita Isabel) and Grandfather Jesus (Federico Luppi). Jesus Gris owns an antiques shop, and he brings his inquisitive granddaughter along while the store is open. One day, he discovers a small, scarab-like mechanical device inside of a statue of an angel. The following day, Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman) arrives to buy the statue for his uncle (Claudio Brook). The device, it seems, was created by an alchemist (Mario Iván Martínez) in 1535, and was lost after his death in a bank collapse - in 1937.
Jesus is surprised that the device attaches itself to his skin, drawing blood, and immediately removes the Cronos device - until he notices that its brief contact to his skin removed years of aging from his life. He begins, to the chagrin of Aurora, to continue using the device, developing a taste for blood - needed to power the device - and becoming addicted to the inevitable transformation the scarab brings him. Unfortunately, De la Guardia is perfectly aware that the device should have been in the statue, knows what the Cronos device can do, and sends Angel to find Jesus at any cost.
At the risk of spoiling anything else, I'm going to stop there; viewers watching Cronos benefit best from the least amount of spoilers possible. Guillermo del Toro makes the best of his low budget and tells an intimate, disturbing fairy tale about losing a member of one's family without necessarily losing them (again, I'm trying to avoid spoilers) while making the best of his bilingual cast (Perlman speaks almost entirely in English, save for a few intentionally bad lines in Spanish). The effects are particularly impressive: del Toro gives us glimpses inside of the Cronos device, hinting at an insect-like creature that lives inside and perhaps(?) facilitates Jesus' transformation.
The film is going to appeal to Guillermo del Toro fans who gravitate towards The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, rather than the grand scale Blade II or Hellboy films. This is not to say both won't find something to enjoy in his first film; traces of del Toro's later films exist throughout Cronos, both thematically and in imagery he's drawn towards. It stands proudly alongside his later work, but also fits in nicely with the atypical vampire films listed in the first paragraph. It also shares a connective tissue with another film, one released a decade before, by an equally well regarded "cult" director.
(Semi-spoilers ahead) Criterion released Cronos on the same day they issued a Blu-Ray upgrade for Videodrome, and its hardly a coincidence: late in Cronos, there's a moment that mirrors Cronenberg's 1983 film where the protagonist reaches into his stomach, feeling past his old skin and discovering his "new flesh." The parallels, even though they may end differently (Cronos opts for closing imagery similar to Nosferatu's and one that would be used later in Shadow of the Vampire), almost certainly left an impression on the Criterion team, and their simultaneous release allows audiences to discover intertextuality where they would not think to look otherwise.