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An inventive and compassionate reworking of vampire mythology from Mexican writer-director Guillermo Del Toro. An old antiques dealer finds a mechanical device capable of disturbing transformations
Filmmakers have long riffed on the basic stakes-and-sunlight tales of vampires. Nadja, The Hunger, The Wisdom Of Crocodiles, all have taken the abiding vampire mythology as reiterated by Universal in the 1930s and Hammer in the 1950s,1960s and 1970s, and worked in various new themes. Mexican Del Toro introduces an original take with his debut feature, while toying respectfully and playfully with the atmospherics of vintage Hammer.
A prologue introduces a Da Vinci-esque 16th century alchemist and clockmaker who creates "the cronos device", which is "the key to eternal life". In 1937, a strange, marble-skinned figure is killed when a building collapses, his chest pierced by a broken joist - it is, horror of horrors, the same alchemist.
Cut to contemporary Mexico, where antique dealer Jesús Gris (Luppi) and his granddaughter Aurora (Shanath) discover an ornate, scarab-like object hidden within a statue of an angel. Experimenting, Jesús has his skin punctured by needle-like legs that emerge from the device. Despite the pain, the result is that Jesús looks younger. Experimentation gives way to compulsion. But Jesús' new vigour is accompanied by a slowly dawning blood-lust ("I'll be back in a second, I just need a drink" he says before going to the toilet and attempting to slurp up a nosebleed from the floor). He also starts getting hassled by Dieter (Brook), a mysterious, Howard Hughes-like figure who sends out his thuggish nephew Angel (Perlman) to find the device, hoping it will bring him eternal life. A tad zealous, Angel succeeds in killing Jesús. But he doesn't simply succumb so easily.
With a name like Jesús Gris, what would you expect? Jesús does undergo a resurrection, but it's not Christ-like and inspirational, it's messy and sorrowful. A damaged corpse, painted and dressed up by the mortician, Jesús is an unlikely, tragic hero. Rather than giving himself up to his blood-lust and undead longevity, he instead is confused but essentially moral. The pathos of his circumstances are upped further by the loyalty of his granddaughter. Cronos is peculiarly compassionate, approaching the question of immortality poetically as well as horrifically and humorously.
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