Few directors have left such a clear thesis statement about the kinds of stories they want to tell as Guillermo del Toro. From its opening prologue, chronicling a mysterious alchemist who creates a device that can give users eternal life, Cronos distills del Toro’s distinct sensibilities and aesthetics directly. Since its premiere at Cannes in 1993, Cronos carries the interests del Toro has made a throughline of his career, and it’s also what’s made it such an enduring, essential part of the vampiric cinematic canon.
Centuries after the alchemist first made the device, we meet Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi), an elderly antique shop owner, and his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) in Mexico City. They unknowingly have something the de la Guardia family wants. So, when Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman) comes into the shop to buy an angel statue that he thinks contains the powerful object, the pair doesn’t think much of it. Besides, they’ve already taken the mysterious thing out, with no understanding of its powerful, god-like nature. When Angel and his father realize their mistake, they will stop at nothing to get the device back. Jesús, however, has already been stung by the thing, and will soon learn that the newfound strength and vigor he’s feeling comes at a cost.
Cronos is del Toro’s distinct and wholly realized take on the vampire movie, and one that immediately cements where his creative heart lies. The growing tension between Jesús and Aurora (as he becomes a bloodthirsty creature of the night) calls to mind the tension in one of del Toro’s favorite films: the original, 1931 Frankenstein. When Jesús sees that Aurora has cut herself near the end of the film, the tension present in the infamous daisies scene comes to mind: a monster and a child, the potential for gentleness or cruelty resting on a razor’s edge. In true del Toro fashion, his monster chooses the former and becomes more human because of it. Finding humanity in the monstrous (and vice versa) has been a main theme of the director’s over the course of his career.
In addition, there’s a last glimpse of what could have been in Cronos, too. The film is one of the few the Mexican filmmaker got to make in his home country before deciding to move with his family to the U.S. after the kidnapping of his father, Federico del Toro. Because of this incident, and the financial burden Cronos initially placed on del Toro, the filmmaker ended up making more movies in the U.S. than his native Mexico. It’s a bittersweet thing and one that grounds del Toro’s choices in the world of the movie even more precious. Take the specifically, morbidly Mexican joke of the sound of Norteño music floating out of the radio as the mortician Tito prepares Jesús’s body (unknowingly undead) – Tito does a horrible job but takes pride in his work nonetheless. It’s one of the many things that makes Cronos such a stunning, specifically del Toro debut.
While Cronos is a grounded, sincere work from del Toro about the nature of our humanity, it’s also kind of gross – which is another factor that makes the film stand out three decades later. The device needs blood to bestow its gift, and when it pierces Jesús, del Toro gives us close-ups of the tender flesh getting punctured. The camera doesn’t shy away from the amount of blood left behind. The “sting” of the device, the decrepit, melting face of Jesús as he transforms into something else, are all part of the schlocky sensibility the movie works in, too. Del Toro’s love for the grotesque is clear, and the movie is all the better for it.
Three decades later, Cronos still has the distinct mark of its creator and serves as a strong calling card for del Toro’s work. It’s also an enduring piece of the vampire canon – and one that ends on a rare note of grace: when Jesús has lost all of his humanity, he’s still loved, still understood by his loved ones. That note of tenderness is one del Toro still carries in his work today, and it’s what makes his feature debut endure.