Cronos (1992)

I first saw this ten or fifteen years ago while exploring Guillermo del Toro's filmography.  Filmed in a combination of English and Spanish, Cronos is his first film. I recall thinking it was good but being a little underwhelmed at the time, particularly compared to his follow-up, The Devil's Backbone. If I noticed this was set at New Year's, I forgot it soon after.

While this didn't leave much of an impression on me then, it absolutely did now. I think I was expecting a more typical vampire story, and as a result wasn't ready to fully appreciate the more subdued, thoughtful film del Toro delivered, which is more a fairytale assembled out of deconstructed horror elements than the usual superpowered monsters. In my defense, understated genre films were more common in the '90s and early '00s, so something like this stood out less then than it does in 2023.

Regardless, this is fantastic, which means it's time for a mandatory spoiler warning. If you're a fan of del Toro's work, you might consider checking out of this write-up before I lay out the whole plot. This isn't the kind of movie where knowing the ending eliminates the joy of experiencing it all unfold, but that's of course for you to decide.

The premise of the film is built around a completely reimagined vampire adhering to most (though not quite all) of the traditional rules but with an entirely new background. A brief prologue introduces us to the new origin, which involves an alchemist who invented a device granting its user eternal youth, though not necessarily immortality - the alchemist himself is killed in the aftermath of an explosion decades before the main events kick off.

The device is found by Jesús Gris (played by Federico Luppi), the aging owner of an antique shop, after a potential buyer (Angel de la Guardia, played by Ron Perlman, in case you thought he only got killed by a vampiric protagonist in one del Toro film) unintentionally clues him into its hiding place.

...And that seems like a good place to pause and acknowledge the name thing. In case you missed it, the main character's name is basically "gray Jesus," and the antagonist is more or less named "guardian angel." That trend continues through all the names - Jesús's wife is Mercedes (basically Mary), his granddaughter is Aurora, and Angel's uncle is Dieter (I'll save you the trip to Google: it basically means "ruler"). It's all a bit silly and on the nose, though it also serves to reinforce the idea this is all a fairytale of sorts (it's even got a narrator). Whether this is a flaw or not is up to the individual viewer.

The device, of course, starts vampirizing Jesús, though not quite in the sense you'd expect. He initially gains youthful vitality, and he's clearly drawn towards blood (though he won't actually taste any until the halfway point and won't drink from a person until nearly the end). As far as he can tell, the device is a gift.

The main threat comes from Angel, who ransacks Jesús's store, intentionally leaving a business card among the wreckage for Jesús to find. Jesús goes to their factory and meets Dieter, a dying industrialist with the alchemist's notes and an obsession about prolonging his own life. It's worth noting that Angel doesn't believe (or even really understand) any of the supervillain stuff - he's just trying to lock down his inheritance.

Things come to a head on New Year's Eve (three days after the movie starts, if anyone's counting). Jesús finally tastes blood he finds on a bathroom floor, though he's knocked unconscious by Angel almost immediately after. Angel then takes him to a deserted location and tries to force him to reveal the location of the device, but seemingly winds up killing him in the process. He stages a car crash to make it look like an accident, then lies to his uncle about what occurred, since that definitely wasn't part of Dieter's plan.

It should be noted that Jesús stays dead for a while (probably another three days in keeping with the Christ motif, though if this was confirmed I missed it). He rises just before he's supposed to be cremated and makes his way home, where Aurora finds him and hides him in the attic (in a fun nod to Dracula's coffin, he sleeps in a toy chest). By now, he's becoming more and more vampiric - his skin is beginning to peel, and sunlight burns him.

Eventually he goes after the alchemist's notes in Dieter's possession, hoping to learn how to break the curse. Aurora sneaks along, as well, which turns out to be fortunate - she's instrumental in getting them inside, and she's exceedingly helpful later.

Once there, Dieter confronts Jesús and offers a partnership. He tells Jesús to peel off the rotting skin, revealing new, pale flesh resembling a traditional Nosferatu appearance. He also clues him into the whole "drinking blood" part. When Jesús tells him he just wants out, Dieter is all too happy to oblige and nearly kills him (in this story vampires can be killed by piercing their hearts with anything). But just before Dieter can finish him off, Aurora smacks the industrialist upside the head. Jesús bites him and begins feeding, completing his transformation.

Eventually Angel shows up. He's all too happy his uncle's out of the picture, proclaiming, "Merry Christmas," and murdering the old man when he realizes he's not quite dead yet. But while Angel's happy with how things are playing out, he also wants Jesús out of the picture, presumably because he knows too much. As they fight it becomes clear Angel is planning to kill Aurora, too, so Jesús tackles Angel through a glass roof, killing him.

As Jesús rises, he sees that Aurora is cut and is briefly tempted to attack her. But she finally speaks, tenderly calling him grandfather, and he retains enough of his humanity to instead smash the device, knowing it will seal his fate. The movie ends with him lying in bed dying, with his loved ones nearby.

The movie's themes play into a couple aspects of New Year's. This is ultimately a struggle between Dieter futilely fighting the inevitability of time and Jesús accepting it. Dieter fears death so much he pushes away the only force that could comfort him in its presence. Meanwhile, Jesús chooses to accept death and continue the cycle in which the next generation replaces the last (a legacy Dieter loses when Angel, mimicking his uncle's selfish behavior, brings about the end of their bloodline).

This cycle, of course, mirrors that of the new year replacing the old. It's a common theme in Christmas and New Year's media - Cronos would work well in a marathon with Prometheus and The Green Knight. There's even a sequence in which Angel has a speech about having been kept waiting for his uncle to pass that's similar to Charlize Theron's in Prometheus (there are several similarities between their characters, in fact).

Time is an ever-present entity in the movie - unsurprising, given the title. Clocks fill Jesús's store, both visually and audibly, the alchemist's device is a clockwork mechanism with a living insectoid heart, and there's even a massive clock overhanging the rooftop showdown between Jesús and Angel at the end. Del Toro drives home the idea that death is inevitable, so what matters is the way we live and face it.

Cronos isn't just playing with these ideas for their own sake, however. Dieter clinging to life reflects the way he's clinging to wealth. I don't think it's coincidental that the villain is rich and the hero isn't - there's a political message about class struggles, as well.

It's also worth noting that the movie plays into the idea the season is a space outside of time, between the end of one year and the start of the next. The entire movie seems to occur within the twelve days of Christmas, and the main character enters a state between living and dying. In essence, he's stepping out of the solar cycle (which in turn plays off the idea of vampires being unable to tolerate the sun). It's all very clever, providing a great deal for both Christmas and monster movie nerds to dig their teeth into.

But of course none of that has much to do with why the movie's enjoyable. Rich symbolism makes for a fun exercise, but it's the movie's humor and dark whimsy that make it a fun experience. And, as is the case for pretty much every del Doro production, this offers all that in spades. For a vampire film, it's surprisingly sweet, centering largely on the loving relationship between a grandfather and his granddaughter. The comedy is great as well, flawlessly integrated into the bizarre fairytale world being crafted.

I should also note that, while this feels more fairytale than horror, del Toro still delivers some genuinely disturbing images and moments. The body horror aspects of Jesús's metamorphosis are both gross and scary, and the movie features a couple shocking moments. The makeup and set designs pull double-duty, giving the film a magical, childlike wonder, but also creepy recreations and updates of classic horror.

None of that should be surprising to anyone familiar with del Toro's later work: he's been exploring the intersection of fairytales and horror his whole career (and with good reason - the two genres essentially began as one). As much as I like his later films, I actually think I prefer the simplicity of his earliest productions. After rewatching, this joins Devil's Backbone as one of my favorites of his movies. Given how much I adore Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy 2, that's pretty high praise.

Needless to say, this one's worth tracking down if you haven't seen it, or if - like me - it's been a while. It's aged extremely well and makes for a great New Year's watch.