20 May 2008

CRONOS (Dir. Guillermo del Toro, 1993, Mexico) - a revisionist vampire tale

Considered a minor work in the visually impressive ouevre of contemporary Mexican film auteur, Guillermo Del Toro, Cronos is best described as a revisionist vampire film, and features a thematic preoccupation (that of immortality) that Del Toro would return to again in Blade II: Bloodhunt. The recent international success of Del Toro’s award winning Spanish civil war fairytale, Pan’s Labryinth, has catapulted him into becoming one of the most sought after and in demand film-makers working anywhere in the world today.

Alternating between personal projects and more commercial mainstream ventures like the Hellboy films, Del Toro has successfully navigated his way through rampant commercialism whilst staying true to his original art house roots. Del Toro’s Hollywood films (Hellboy, Mimic, Blade II) are arguably more interesting than the personal projects (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone) aimed at a niche art house festival audience because they reveal a tension between genre conventions and auteur traits that is characteristic of some of the best film makers working within the limitations of the Hollywood mainstream. Paul Greengrass and Ang Lee are two film makers who have also taken a similar split career approach, producing superior examples of high concept film making with the likes of The Bourne Ultimatum and The Hulk. Though Hellboy (an unusually dark comic book adaptation) performed disappointingly at the box office and rather than find a replacement, Hollywood were cautious not to alienate the artistic affections of Del Toro and provided him with a significantly larger budget for a Hellboy sequel that is due out later this summer. Even if Hellboy II is not a commercial success, critics are looking forward to the prospect of a Hollywood blockbuster film with a $75 million budget being directed by one of the more imaginative film makers working today.

It was the success of Pan’s Labyrinth that ensured Del Toro’s credibility as a versatile director who can successfully alternate between art and commerce, and a film like Cronos, which was directed by Del Toro in 1993 acts as the perfect introduction to the themes and issues that have come to define much of his work today. Vampires have always fascinated audiences and before they were resurrected by Hollywood as a staple genre, the vampire myth haunted much of European literature for a long time. Like the zombie, the strangely alluring figure of the Vampire has been used by film makers as an allegorical vehicle for tackling an array of issues like sexuality, the Aids crisis, capitalism, death and most significantly, religion.

Del Toro's take on the vampire myth is somewhat revisionist because he steers well clear of the traditional conventions, opting for a narrative that seems more interested in examining the contemporary crisis of old age. Featuring a brilliantly naunced performance from Frederico Luppi as an elderly antiques dealer who becomes both a slave and victim to the promise of youthful regeneration, the film is also notable for Del Toro's sympathetic depiction of a mute girl, Aurora, who forms a sensitive relationship with her grandfather. The nightmarish journey taken by the child into an unknown world that seems to befriend her is a theme that would be fully realised by Del Toro in Pan's Labryinth, and on reflection this seems almost like a precursor to the hauntingly memorable character of Ophelia.

Del Toro helped design the visually enigmatic cronos device used in the film and his direct involvement in the aesthetic design of many of his films including the sets, costumes, make up and creatures is another characteristic that defines much of his work. This aspect of his film making is clearly evident in the rich imagery and fairytale creatures that occupy the landscape of his most recent feature film, Pan's Labryinth, which was genuinally imaginative in it's use of special effects.

Cronos ends quite conservatively, suggesting that eternal damnation becomes an unavoidable price for those who choose to pursue the unrealistic dream of immortality - Del Toro invokes the traditions of those classic early horror films that outlined a strict morality and in this case, he seems to indicating that growing old is something that should be accepted gracefully but not completely without any kind of questioning.

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