The central character of the Mexican horror movie Cronos is a kindly old man named Jess Gris, the proprietor of a Mexico City curio shop. The luckless Jess finds, amid the dusty bric-a-brac of his shop, a little metal gadget in the shape of a scarab, built by a 16th-century alchemist. If the scarab bites you, as it does Jess before he even knows what he's dealing with, it makes you impervious to death. Minor detail: It accomplishes this by turning you into a vampire.

Of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of vampire movies the world cinema has produced, there's only one other I can think of--George A. Romero's ghastly Martin--that takes a completely unromantic approach to the condition of vampirism. And of the many, many Mexican horror films I've seen, visually nightmarish though some of them were, Cronos is the only one that holds up and remains coherent for its entire length (although Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy remains one of my favorite films). In Cronos, the thirst for blood is a horrible, addictive need, and physical immortality is, la Death Becomes Her, a hideous folly. No image in Bram Stoker's Dracula is as remotely shocking as the sight of Jess (powerfully played by Federico Luppi) furtively getting on his knees in a men's room to lick up a small pool of blood that has fallen there from another man's nosebleed. Jess is wearing black evening dress at the time--he's attending a formal-dress function--and this is, subtly, a further subversion of the classic Dracula figure.

There hasn't been a more original scene in a horror movie in a long time. Writer-director Guillermo del Toro, who was 29 when the film was made, doesn't seem to be one for sticking to the standard playbook of the genre. The plot of Cronos takes some odd, darkly comic (but never campy) twists and turns as Jess, as if he didn't already have enough trouble, runs afoul of an evil industrialist (Claudio Brook, who played the title role in Buuel's Simon of the Desert) who is after the scarab and of the industrialist's brutal-but-harried henchman/nephew (Ron Perlman).

If Cronos finally doesn't affect us at the deepest and most disturbing levels that a horror picture can, it may be because of del Toro's decision to focus on the relationship between Jess and his granddaughter (Tamara Shanath). Del Toro doesn't milk it, he doesn't try to tug our heartstrings--and he doesn't let the actors try, either--but when you get a saintly old man and an angelic little girl together on the same screen, it's hard to completely avoid a whiff of the maudlin.

Jess' very saintliness may slightly mitigate the film's terror, too. Most of the really troubling horror films are more about the psychic manifestation of guilt than they are about physical fright; guilt about sexual desire (vampires, hockey-mask slashers), about lack of self-control (werewolves), about "trespassing in God's domain" (Frankenstein, sci-fi monsters). The traditional vampire could only get you if you invited it into your home--if, in other words, you were asking for it. Jess doesn't remotely invite his fate. He's just a nice old antique dealer who picks up an interesting object in his own store. He's too good a man to give us a frisson of guilty empathy.

Still, Cronos (which won nine Ariels--Mexican Oscars--last year, plus a Critics' Week Grand Prize at Cannes) is an intelligent, inventive, unpredictable foray into the grotesque. Del Toro is clearly a name to watch for.


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