[With Guillermo del Toro’s new movie Crimson Peak opening next Friday, I decided to take a look back at the director’s filmography.]
Guillermo del Toro is a man of monsters. The charming, gregarious filmmaker knows his bleak mythologies inside and out, and he has a deep love for darkness that usually results in feelings of melancholy and loss in his movies. He cares deeply for the grotesque, the broken, the misunderstood, and everything that creeps and crawls as long as it has a beating heart. It is in this heart where he shows a humanity that permeates all of his films. He’s a brilliant designer, but he transforms into a visionary when he melds his iconic designs with deep empathy for his characters and their sorrowful circumstances.
His debut film, Cronos, doesn’t reach that apex, but it’s an incredibly promising start from a director who was in his early twenties when he wrote the script, directed it a few years later, and had it in theaters by the time he was 28. It’s a movie that lays out everything del Toro aspired towards, and while he lacked both the resources and experiences to realize his full potential, the talent, and more importantly, the vision, is undeniably present.
The story follows Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) (del Toro flirts with religion, but never goes past second base; naming his character after history’s most famous resurrected figure doesn’t delve deeper into the Christ narrative because the Bible isn’t the director’s primary interest), a kind, elderly man who runs an antique shop. One day, he comes across a statue filled with roaches along with an odd “toy”. The toy is a device that bestows immortality to the user, but at the price of needing human blood in order to perform its function—or rather, the function of the insect trapped inside the device. Jesus, craving the virility the machine bestows, holds onto it, but that puts him in the crosshairs of the vain and petty Angel (Ron Perlman), who’s working on behalf of his ailing uncle De La Guardia (Claudio Brook).
The pull between the monster and the man returns again and again in del Toro’s films. The world is populated with monsters, and it’s a question of which side will win out, and the director doesn’t even seem sure if men should triumph unless they choose to nobly sacrifice their lives (or at least attempt to do so). We’re ruled by monstrous desires that can overtake even the kindliest of souls as we see with Jesus, who’s portrayed wonderfully by Luppi. There’s not much to Jesus on the page, and even less to his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath), who may as well be a robot sidekick thanks to her blank performance. She’s a shortcut to innocence and del Toro never truly puts her in harm’s way (perhaps her fate would have seemed a bit more precarious if Cronos had come after Mimic, Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth where being a child in a movie doesn’t offer automatic protection). But when it comes to Luppi, he imbues the characters with a necessary warmth and universality. He’s the prototypical grandfather figure that will reappear time and again in del Toro’s films, and he makes for a fine model here.
Del Toro also finds one his career’s chief collaborators in Perlman, who takes what could have been the thankless villain role, and instead works to turn it into a bit of comic relief. Angel is always unlikable and a little two-dimensional, but Perlman turns that in his favor to make the character oddly endearing. Angel is a byproduct of a monster, and the clever twist is that he seeks the same goal as his uncle and Jesus–they’re all trying to cheat time. It’s just that instead of trying to get a magic vampire machine, Angel wants a nose-job. This is the first time Perlman helped to ground del Toro’s vision, but it wouldn’t be the last.
You can see the seeds of del Toro’s personality being planted in Cronos, and it’s rewarding to know how they’ll grow in future films. He begins the tale with the narrative of the alchemist, and over the course of Cronos, we see that del Toro is trying to craft a new spin on the vampire tale while keeping the human element intact. For del Toro, he doesn’t see romanticism in these characters; he sees parasites who will do whatever’s necessary to survive, and based on the behavior of the de la Guardias, it’s a trait not confined to those who use the Cronos device.
Through del Toro, the classic becomes modern without losing any of its earnestness. You can see how much the director loves mythology, but this is a reinvention of the vampire tale while also removing most of its staples, especially romantic love. While there is “love” in Cronos, its reserved mostly for a grandfather protecting his granddaughter (we don’t see much of Jesus and his wife Mercedes (Margarita Isabel)). The way del Toro views vampirism in this context is the past intruding on the present because that’s what immortality—the promise of the Cronos device—does. It breaks the rules of life and death to where del Toro goes a little B-movie by having Jesus “die” at the hands of Angel only to come back “deader than dead.”
As the movie goes on, you can see del Toro reaching his limitations. The gothic undertones are overshadowed by slightly B-movie touches likes the weak makeup effects and Jesus wearing his burial suit backwards. It’s like some of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 got mixed in with a story that hadn’t necessarily been solemn, but certainly felt more straightfaced as opposed to general movie monsters and creepy bloodshed. Del Toro has always had a penchant for the weird—Jesus licking blood off the floor of a men’s room speaks volumes—but he lacked the experience to deploy those moments. There’s nothing wrong with del Toro’s sense of humor, but it’s out of tune near the end of Cronos.
And yet for all of its flaws, Cronos is remarkably mature given del Toro’s age when he made it. The film has a lot of sympathy with an old man who behaves like a drug addict, and it shows that sympathy through ancient devices and vampirism. When del Toro’s peers were making movies about their daily realities, he chose to go for something supernatural, and tried to walk the line between campy B-film and earnest exploration of a failed quest for immortality. He’s not always successful at it, but that endearing honesty is what keeps Cronos compelling through all of its shortcomings. Del Toro wants to find the monster in the man and vice-versa.
However, he was still a long way from the confident, knowledgeable filmmaker we recognize today. Del Toro is incredibly smart, but Cronos shows a craft that’s still early in development. There are some fun shots in the movie, but the way he plays with countermovement, set design, or any of his other trademarks are largely absent. Again, that boils down to a lack of resources and experiences, but the foundation of the filmmaker’s talent remains in Cronos. It’s undeniably del Toro’s movie even if was still developing.
He would suffer through his growing pains in his next feature, and the painful process would transform his approach to filmmaking and Hollywood.