Writer-director Guillermo del Toro's debut feature 'Cronos,' was released in 1993 in two theaters its first weekend in the United States. (It later played in a whopping 28 theaters.) Today he's plotting a $100 million adaptation of HP Lovecraft's Antarctic horror epic 'At the Mountains of Madness,' to be produced in 3-D with the help of some guy named James Cameron. And watching 'Cronos' today you can see the visionary filmmaker within, the one who would spawn the fantastically imaginative 'Pan's Labyrinth' and 'Hellboy' films, just, you know, on a much smaller scale.
The plot of 'Cronos' is an uncanny take on the vampire genre. In this case, the thing that gives you immortality and cool fangs isn't a bat or a beast, but rather a tiny mechanical scarab (with some kind of bug living inside it). It has been hiding in the base of an ornamental religious statue, one that just so happens to come into the antique shop of Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi). Gris discovers the scarab and, unbeknownst to him, unleashes its power. The scarab latches onto him.
At first he starts to, in the words of a particular generation, feel groovy. He's robust, with color returning to his hair and skin and along with it, a discovery of a newfound reservoir of energy. But things quicklyturn grotesque and that pesky hankering for human blood rears its ugly head (there's a particularly memorable scene where he's lapping blood up off the floor like a cat drinking milk).
While all of this is going on, we also get the story of Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook), a rich old man who is dying and searching, frantically, for the scarab. He sends out his nephew, Angel (Ron Perlman) to track down the artifact and the hidden scarab within. Angel is a goon who wants a nose job, and could care less about his uncle's deteriorating health, since he has his eye on a tidy inheritance.
Long before his comic book/manga-ish take on vampires, 'Blade 2,' del Toro tried to capture the creatures of the night here. And he does a spectacular job. Like most of del Toro's later, more widely acknowledged films, it's a wonderfully paced, intricately told fairy tale, in which the monster isn't a scary being as much as something that should be pitied. (Like most great horror storytellers, from Richard Matheson to Stephen King, del Toro recognizes that humans are much, much scarier.)
The fact that del Toro accomplished all of this with a fraction of the budgets that he would be awarded later in his career – this was, please remember, his very first feature film(!)- makes this all the more impressive. And while the film might not have the visual sophistication that some of his later films are equipped with, you can see him getting there. This was the first picture where he worked with his longtime partner Guillermo Navarro (who is a genius) and you can see his visual style taking shape. It might be baby steps, but it's still there.
If you're a fan of the director (and, really, why shouldn't you be?) and you've missed his first film, well, it's required viewing. Few debut films are this assured or outrageous. He's one of the greatest filmmakers of our generation, and this is where he started.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Cronos' blasts its way onto high definition with a 50GB disc that is Region A locked. This being a Criterion release, it comes in a slightly chunkier, see-through box (spine #551). The cover was designed by Mike Mignola, creator of 'Hellboy' (which del Toro adapted twice). A totally gorgeous design.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (aspect ratio: 1.78:1) is startling good, especially given the film's meager budget and the period it's from (there aren't a lot of particularly handsome low-budget films from the early 1990's).
Some notes about the transfer from the accompanying booklet: "'Cronos' is presented in the director's preferred aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Director Guillermo del Toro and director of photography Guillermo Navarro supervised this new high-definition digital transfer, which was created in 2K resolution on a Spirit 4K Datacine from the original 35 mm camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system, while Digital Vision's DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction."
While that sounds horribly complicated (and more than a little technical), it also brings up the looming fear of DNR-related muddiness, seen in things like Universal's recent 'Spartacus' botch job. But, it pleases me to report that things are actually just really, really good looking. There are no glitchy technical issues. At all.
Detail is strong, skin tones look good, textures really pop, and the overall image is startlingly clear. If you've only seen the previously released DVD (or, Oprah forbid, the crinkly old VHS), you will be absolutely blown away by the picture quality. I was. In fact, I started noticing things that I had missed before. And these aren't tiny details, but big flourishes – like the discarded statues that line the evil millionaire's office – that were indistinguishable in earlier home video versions of this movie. It's sort of a revelation.
It's the best the movie's ever looked, and an all-around solid transfer. Well done, folks.
So there's only one audio option on the 'Cronos' disc (although there are optional languages for the intro – English or the original Spanish, I suggest the latter), a Spanish DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix. This mix has optional English SDH subtitles for the feature.
It should also be noted that some of the movie is in English, like all of the dialogue from Ron Perlman's character, the nose job-obsessed thug Angel.
If you're wondering what the little booklet says about the audio transfer, well, luckily I'm here to provide you with the answer: "The stereo soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm LT/RT magnetic soundtrack. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated audio workstation."
In short, just like the video transfer, this is the best the movie has ever, ever sounded. As the rundown suggests, there's very little in the way of glitchy audio issues, and there is a surprisingly dynamic amount of range with the two-channel mix. Dialogue is crisp, clear, and well prioritized and Javier Alvarez's score sounds terrific here.
Is it going to trump the latest Michael Bay blockbuster in terms of bass-rattling power? No. But it's a truly great mix for a film that definitely deserved it. It's fantastic to hear the movie sound this great.
All of the extras on this deluxe reissue of 'Cronos' also appears on the concurrent DVD release. Also included in the extra-chunky Criterion box is an essay by Film Comment regular Maitland McDonagh called "Beautiful Dark Thing." There are also great "Director's Notes" from Guillermo del Toro (both typed and written) and an additional, gorgeous illustration by Mike Mignola.
I love 'Cronos.' Big time. It's the first chance we had to see Guillermo del Toro's fractured take on the world, one in which vampires are old men who run antique shops and the real monsters are powerful millionaires lusting for the secret to eternal youth. It's that same mixture of humanism and the fantastic that has made del Toro one of the finest purveyors of emotionally rich genre madness. The film is being brought to high definition in a deluxe package that is truly jaw-dropping – vastly improved picture and sound and a host of worthy extras. This is, as far as I'm concerned, a must own. The only way it could have been better would be the original intention to house the disc inside a reproduction of the cronos device. Imagine opening up that glittery gold scarab and taking the Blu-ray disc out! Yeah, that probably would have gotten old pretty quick. And how are you supposed to lend it out, anyway? Getting back to the 'Cronos' Blu-ray: For fans, it's a must own. For others, it is highly, highly recommended.