With the Brisbane International Film Festival fresh in mind, I'm really excited that my first review on this blog is one of my personal highlights from the festival. Guillermo del Toro's debut feature, Cronos, is my favourite kind of horror film. It was restrained and intelligent, with tasteful body horror themes reminiscent of David Cronenberg. It is incredibly satisfying (and horrifying) to watch a character you genuinely empathise with transform physically and emotionally into something monstrous, wondering how far from their original form they will descend and whether they have crossed the point of no return.
The tragic protagonist in this tale is Jesus Gris (played by Federico Luppi), an antique store owner and loving grandfather. His tender relationship with his young granddaughter, Aurora, initially endears him to us. We are also introduced to his wife, a dance instructor, who appears to have grown distant from Jesus (possibly due to their difference in age). This adds another element of fragility to Jesus' character, as he dutifully trudges through his morning routine and goes to work.
This turns for Gris when he discovers in his shop a 16th century, golden, alchemical mechanism that, unbeknownst to our hero, grants the user eternal life. After innocently winding up the device, it latches onto his hand and injects him with what the audience is shown to be the secretions of an insect still living inside it. This first use is forgiveable, but Gris' weakness becomes apparent as he becomes addicted to it. Thus begins Gris' descent. It immediately reminded me of Seth Brundle from The Fly's transformation. Initially, both characters see physical benefits, becoming younger and stronger, but this new found sense of power also drives them away from those closest to them. And then skin starts to come off and you see what's been growing underneath... but more about that later. Despite the similarities, the two characters aren't carbon copies. Jesus Gris' rejuvenation, while scaring his granddaughter, actually brings him closer to his wife. And rather than letting his hubris destroy his relationship with Aurora completely, Gris works hard to convince his granddaughter that he knows what he's doing, though he's clearly trying to convince himself just as much.
Events escalate again for Gris when he develops a taste for human blood and is murdered (temporarily) by a thug trying to track down the esoteric device on behalf of his terminally ill employer/uncle. Gris luckily regains mortality just before he is cremated, and the gravity of what he has become sets in. I don't really want to go into the plot too much more lest I ruin it for anyone who is yet to see it, but trust me when I say it's a satisfying story from beginning until the end.
The character of Aurora is the innocent of the story, an archetype that appears in several of del Toro's films (Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone, and we can assume from the trailers, Don't be Afraid of the Dark). She is almost completely silent the entire film, which seems to be a good way to stop child actors screwing up your movie. Not that she didn't perform well, its just a good rule of thumb. But I digress.
As Gris' addiction to the device worsens, he starts to put Aurora at risk. These selfish acts are far removed from those of the dutiful grandfather we're introduced to at the beginning of the film. Body horror is often an allegory for all kinds of issues, such as disease, our relationship to technology and (more often than you'd think) emasculation, but I'm hard strung trying to remember of another body horror movie that deals with addiction. But when you think about the physical and mental degradation that an addict goes through, I wonder why there aren't more.
Federico Luppi carries us expertly through the Jesus Gris' character arch, from endearment to pity. Another great piece of casting was Ron Perlman, playing the cocky thug trying to track down the device. Perlman apparently offers even more value for Guillermo del Toro, generously agreeing to pay-cuts when the film went over budget. Del Toro did make him Hellboy 10 years later, so they're probably about even now...
Watching this film reminded me just how good del Toro is and how important he is to modern horror, but also how clear his vision has been since he started making films. You really must watch this move if the opportunity presents itself. It will leave you feeling very satisfied.
4.5 alchemical devices of immortality out of 5