Color, 1993, 94m.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook, Margarita Isabel, Tamara Shanath
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Lionsgate (US R1 NTSC), Optimum, Tartan (UK R2 PAL), Metropolitan (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DD2.0
When antique dealer Jesus Gris (Lupi) acquires a golden metal device shaped like an insect, he doesn't realize it's actually a unique but dangerous tool for immortality created by an alchemist in the 16th Century. The Cronos device's method of inserting a metallic stinger into its owner results in increased youth and vigor as well as an insatiable thirst for blood, but that compromise doesn't seem to bother the wealthy and ruthless De La Guardia (Brook), whose time is running out and who sends his abused but equally vicious son Angel (Perlman) to retrieve the Cronos. Meanwhile Gris' granddaughter, Aurora (Like Water for Chocolate's Isabel), who has witnessed the macabre consequences of the device, is more than a little alarmed at seeing her guardian resorting to licking blood off a tile floor to maintain his youth...
Financed and shot in Mexico with a mixture of local, American, and Spanish actors, Cronos spent several years in del Toro's head (along with The Devil's Backbone, which was written even earlier) before his toiling on the TV scene resulted in enough pull to lift the project off the ground. Superficially it shares some similarities with classic European horror cinema (particularly Spanish horror from the early '70s), but its closest ancestors are the Mexican gothics which remained largely unseen outside their native country while more populist offerings involving Aztec mummies, wrestling women, and bloody apes populated the drive-ins. The father of this neglected subgenre is the late Carlos Enrique Taboada, an acknowledged favorite of del Toro's, whose little masterpieces like The Stone Book, Hasta el viento tiene miedo, and Blacker than the Night feature ideas and images involving generational horror and imperiled children which trickle quite clearly through del Toro's cinema. This marked the first collaboration between the director and Perlman (who has since become an in-demand name in his Hellboy films as well as other high-profile European films), but Lupi is also excellent in the lead role and went on to major appearances in del Toro's other Spanish language productions. A familiar face to genre fans, the toothy and incredibly menacing Brook has had one of the most bizarre careers imaginable, with several Luis Buñuel films under his belt (particularly lead roles in The Exterminating Angel and Simon of the Desert) along with Juan López Moctezuma's wonderfully wacko horror masterpieces (Mansion of Madness and Alucarda), The Bees, and even Licence to Kill. Perhaps most significantly, this was also the major breakthrough film for cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who went on to shoot almost all of del Toro's subsequent films along with Jackie Brown, Desperado, and, um, A Night at the Museum.
To put it mildly, Cronos has had a rocky history on home video, particularly in North America. October Films released it in theaters with its original intended soundtrack featuring a mixture of Spanish and English dialogue (mostly Perlman for the latter) with English subtitles where appropriate. The video rights passed to Vidmark for the VHS age, where it looked absolutely wretched with a terrible pan and scan job, inadequate simplified subtitles, and murky sound. Hope were high in 2002 when Lionsgate announced a special edition on DVD, but while the two audio commentaries they delivered (one with del Toro, the other with producers Arthur H. Gorson and Bertha Navarro and co-producer Alejandro Springall) were excellent, the DVD was a complete disaster thanks to the decision to only equip it with English SDH subtitles, meaning the Spanish dialogue was only translated if you wanted to have every single sound effect and English dialogue subtitled as well. A replacement version was promised for years but failed to materialize, and eventually it went out of circulation to no one's particular displeasure. Meanwhile a properly subtitled version popped up in the UK from Tartan, but again, the transfer was really nothing spectacular.
Finally in 2010, Criterion delivered a much-needed version of their own that promised the first correct, watchable version of Cronos ever released on American home video. Does it deliver? You bet. The new HD transfer supervised by del Toro and Navarro blows away the milky theatrical prints and obliterates prior video transfers; the detail and color values here are much richer and more satisfying than any fan could have hoped. The 1080p Blu-Ray is a particularly dark, lustrous work of art that perfectly captures the delicate, richly shadowed cinematography and bright bursts of crimson that are so essential to the mood of the film, and the DTS-HD Master Audio track is finally clear, perfectly balanced, and thoroughly chilling. The new English subtitle translation is also a significant improvement that will be noticeable even to casual viewers who have seen the film before. An optional Spanish voiceover from the original release is also included.
Both of the previous commentaries are carried over here along with a host of new extras that should make any hesitation about upgrading disappear immediately. Del Toro's unfinished 1987 horror short, "Geometria," was completed shortly before this release and is presented here for the first time in its completed version along with a new director intro. It's yet another fascinating piece in his trajectory of moody, quirky horror concoctions. He also appears for a video tour of his home office for a featurette entitled "Welcome to the Bleak House," a fun extra that also captures the energetic, childlike energy he projects so effortlessly in person. A batch of new interviews features del Toro, Navarro, Perlman (who was still an unlikely heartthrob at the time thanks to TV's Beauty and the Beast, though Sons of Anarchy seems to have taken care of that for good), and Luppi, all of whom talk about the film as a sort of early labor of love that laid the template for much of their work to come. Other extras include a stills gallery, the original trailer, and a thick booklet containing an excellent new essay ("Beautiful Dark Things") by the always observant Maitland McDonagh and a generous batch of del Toro's film notes (apparently under the working title of Gray Blood) including the four different color schemes for each theme, character bios, and a breakdown of its basic alchemy references. Very highly recommended in every possible respect.