Dracula in a Toybox: Guillermo del Toro's Cronos

It shouldn't surprise you that Guillermo del Toro's Cronos isn't your ordinary vampire movie. Like his best known film, Pan's Labyrinth, Cronos is a melancholy and brutal movie punctuated by moments of black humor.

And like the strong mother-daughter love story at the center of Pan's Labyrinth, Cronos is a kind of grand guignol Disney family movie, if Disney didn't mind scenes of peeling Nosferatu flesh, desperate bathroom blood-licking and vein-popping mechanical insects. It's out on DVD now from the Criterion Collection.

Top image: Worship the Insect God by Jim Valentine.

Cronos is the story of Jesús Gris, a middle age antiques dealer. He's 57, but carries himself like a man ten years older. At this point in his life Jesús doesn't care about much besides his shop and his little granddaughter, Aurora.

Dracula in a Toybox: Guillermo del Toro's Cronos

One day, a pathetic junkie wanders into his store and quickly leaves after paying just a little too much attention to an old wooden statue of an archangel. When Jesús examines the angel he finds something hidden in the base—an exquisite golden clockwork scarab. It's been in the statue since the 16th century, hidden there by the alchemist who built it. While examining the scarab, Jesús accidentally activates it. The device sprouts six golden legs and clamps onto the old man's hand. By the time he manages to pry the thing off, his palm is a raw meat mess. Jesús has trouble sleeping that night.

Then the blood cravings start.

And that's only the beginning of his problems.

Cronos was del Toro's first feature and making it was a pure leap of faith. He'd made some shorts and had his own small effects house in Mexico, No one wanted or was looking for anything big from him but he wanted to make movies, and Cronos was the one he couldn't get out of his head. Cut to your typical 80s movie montage where we see months of work compressed to the length of your favorite Gogos song.

Del Toro mortgages his house, sells his van and with some help, manages to scrape up just enough cash to make Cronos. The production is chronically short of money, but they finally finish it and fly off to a premier at the glamorous Cannes Film festival. Well, glamorous to someone, but not del Toro and his wife who barely have the money to get there and back home. Cue the Gogos big finish, because Cronos wins the 1993 Critics prize at Cannes and nine Mexican film academy awards. The movie gets an international distribution deal and even though it tanks in the U.S., del Toro now has enough of a rep to direct his first Hollywood feature, the creepy big bug flick Mimic.

There's a second family in Cronos, and they're the polar opposite of Jesús and Aurora. Dieter de la Guardia is a dying industrialist and Angel (Ron Perlman, in his first collaboration with del Toro) is his heir. Heir in the sense that Dieter knows Angel won't flinch when he piles on the insults, or walk out when he repeatedly breaks Angel's nose with one of his canes.

Dracula in a Toybox: Guillermo del Toro's Cronos

Dieter knows about the scarab hidden in the statue, what it is and what it can do. After Angel trashes his shop, Jesús meets Dieter, who explains that the Cronos device is a machine that gives eternal life, but at price. It turns you into a vampire. Not a sexy, fanged chick magnet, but an ordinary slob with a relentless blood hunger. Dieter, who mounts his X-rays on the walls like Rembrandts and keeps everything the doctors have sliced out of him in a display case like the Crown Jewels, wants the device and he wants it damn quick so he sends Angel to get it.

As Jesús's blood lust grows so does his desperation. He senses food all around him but he doesn't know how to feed. When sunlight burns him, Aurora hides him in her oversize toy box, Dracula's coffin with rag dolls. Aurora is the one person who sticks with Jesús and shows him nothing but love as he grows more monstrous and weaker at the same time.

In Cronos, being a vampire doesn't fix anything. This vision of vampirism is relentlessly unglamorous. Jesús isn't an Anne Rice aesthete, but a William Burroughs junkie on a constant, agonized prowl for his next fix.

Dracula in a Toybox: Guillermo del Toro's Cronos

Del Toro isn't just playing with vampire tropes. He's looking at them through the lens of an ordinary life that's been invaded by the extraordinary. You wake up in the morning an old man and go to bed feeling younger and stronger, but with a gnawing hunger you can't define. You have a magical machine that gives you eternal life, just as long as you don't mind spending the next thousand years obsessing about your next fix. And if you walk away, will you really be able to go back to something like a normal life? Running an antiques shop might be a little dull after considering, even for a second, an eternity of murder.

For del Toro, the question of hunger and slaughter comes down to family. Dieter wants to live forever, but what does immortality mean to someone whose entire existence is shuffling between a couple of sterile rooms and savaging Angel, the one person who can stand to be near him? How low will Jesús fall when he's at his worst junkie need and Aurora is the only fresh blood supply around?

The new Criterion release of Cronos comes in DVD and Blu-Ray formats. The movie is from a pristine 35mm print and the colors, clarity and contrast are gorgeous. The disc comes with commentary tracks by del Toro and the producers. There's also a short film he made in 1987. A great extra is a tour of Bleak House, the building del Toro bought to house his offices and massive movie, horror, art and occult objects collection. It's hard to describe the place except to say that if you were the Charles Foster Kane of horror and fantasy, Bleak House would be your Rosebud.