CRONOS (Mexico, 1993) ** 1/4
This is all about the CD. Not the Compact Disc or a Certificate of Deposit but the Cronos Device that is supposed to ensure immortality. It was invented by an alchemist who, fleeing the Inquisition, came to Mexico in 1574 and became an official watchmaker. The device looks like an outsized golden scarab, or, in the director's own words, a Faberge egg .
Apparently there's a glitch in this gizmo: although it kept its inventor alive for centuries, he did die in a 1930s earthquake. You can't trust anything.
Cut to 1997. Meet elderly antiques dealer Jesus Gris, his much younger wife Mercedes and his granddaughter Aurora. Mercedes is a tango teacher who may or may not be unfaithful. Aurora's provenance is unexplained, as is her near-mutism. A lot is unexplained in this movie.
The CD turns up inside the base of a wooden angel that Senor Gris sells to Angel, the gangsterish American nephew-henchman of terminally ill industrialist Dieter De la Guardia. But Gris keeps the contraption, which Angel and Dieter are after. It is only later that, in its muddled, non sequitur way, the film reveals that Dieter owned the alchemist's diary and knew about the CD.
The CD comes without instructions. When Gris winds it up, it puts out needle-pointed claws that pierce, let out blood, cause pain, but also somewhat rejuvenate the man.
There's more muddled stuff as Gris vampiristically needs the blood of others (he licks a nosebleed off a bathroom floor); as the bad Angel beats up and kills Jesus Gris; as Gris's corpse is, in repellent, graphic images, patched up ... and later comes to life; as, with the help of Aurora, Gris fights separately Angel and Dieter.
The movie is a ghoulish goulash of nonsense, plot holes, loose ends, discontinuities and illogicalities, even by horror flick standards. At every step we are left wondering about things natural, unnatural and supernatural. What is the nature of the May-December Gris couple? What do the De la Guardia Enterprises manufacture? How can the resuscitated Gris use a pay phone without change? Why does grungy surgeon-embalmer-mortician Tito cremate an empty coffin?
The film may be a narrative mess, but it is a minor triumph of techniques and visuals. Whether the sights are silly, repulsive or both, the images are striking. The real raison d'etre of the movie is its art work, photography, colors, lighting, special effects, moody, stylized or surreal decors.
By Mexican standards, the "Cronos" budget (about two million dollars) is huge, second only to "Like Water for Chocolate." The movie would have cost ten times more if made in North America.
The 29-year old Guillermo del Toro, self-avowedly "genre-impaired," is exclusively fascinated by "grotesque tales and horror with Gothic sensibility." Obviously a student of horror and science-fiction, he has thrown into his film everything save the prosaic kitchen sink.
Among the elements: Vampires and the Undead, the Search for the Fountain of Youth (in the tradition of the Spanish Conquistador Ponce de Leon), the Golden Bug, Egyptian-like scarabs (a staple of The Mummy's Curse school of movies), the Cronos of Greek mythology (a Titan who devoured his own children) and The Time Machine (Chronos with an "h" means "time" in Greek).
There are also whiffs of Catholicism (prayer, redemption, etc.) and of the Frankenstein moral : don't fool around with what God has created.
Add to this much would-be humorous symbolism of names: Angel (of darkness), Aurora (Dawn in Latin), Tito (as in Yugoslavia's), De la Guardia (the late Mayor of New York? a reference to guarding or protecting?), and more. And, of course, Jesus Gris (cf. Jesus Cristo). Jesus is a common Hispanic name, but here there are pointed references to would-be immortality.
"Cronos" swept the Mexican Oscars with nine "Ariels," including Best Picture, Screenplay and Director. It won the top prize at the Critics Week of the 1993 Cannes Festival. In the U.S., its critical reception has been quite mixed, although in some quarters it is becoming a cult movie of sorts.