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Sometimes filmmakers have to cut their teeth on lesser work before hitting their stride and making a name for themselves. It’s the nature of most achievements that you have to fail a bit before you become great. Then again, some filmmakers come bursting through the gates with a sharp and unique vision on day one, already masters of their craft. Such was the case when Guillermo del Toro made his first feature, the dark and twisted Cronos, in 1993. And you can now watch Cronos on HBO Max.
Del Toro went on to direct some huge hits, from Blade 2 to Hellboy to Pan’s Labyrinth to his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water. But in Cronos, we see the writer-director starting to grapple with some of his favorite themes with a degree of sophistication that is frankly stunning.
Read on for what makes it such a special treat, and check out Cronos on HBO Max for yourself.
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What is Cronos about?
In Cronos, an antiques dealer named Jesús Gris acquires a small statue that immediately attracts the attention of a dying businessman and his unsavory associates. Before selling the statue, though, Jesús removes a small artifact from its base.
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Hidden inside the statue is a device that looks like a golden scarab. The Cronos device is ancient and was built by an alchemist in the 1500s. After living many lifetimes thanks to the Cronos device, the alchemist was killed in a building collapse. Jesús accidentally activates the device, which punctures his skin and exposes him to whatever kept the alchemist alive all those years.
Cronos is a vampire film with a twist.
Jesús is in way over his head. He begins to grow younger, but also develops a taste for human blood, all while he avoids giving the device over to the businessman who grows impatient.
The gift of youth comes at a cost, after all.
An original vampire classic from a master
You can immediately hear the voice of an artist in Cronos. Speaking the language of schlocky genre film, Guillermo del Toro digs deep into the underlying themes of vampire lore to tell a moving story about a man losing himself to the obsessions of others.
One of the features of vampirism that del Toro focuses on is the more grotesque process of becoming an immortal creature. Throughout Cronos, we see bodily decay, as Jesús peels old screen from his flesh and scratches at sores left by the Cronos device. We get echoes of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, in which Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle slowly loses control of himself as he transforms into a human/fly hybrid.
Cronos blends fairytales, body horror, and Christian themes.
There’s something verging on sacrilegious going on here too. We see Jesús reduced to crawling on a bathroom floor to lick the remnants of a stranger’s nosebleed. But that’s set against the suggestion that this is God-like behavior. The businessman chastises Jesús for questioning the possibility that insects are God’s preferred children. The parallel naming of Jesús Gris (conspicuously close to Jesus Christ) offers a dark and warped second coming via alchemy. If Jesus died for our sins, Jesús is resurrected by a continued fascination with breaking the laws of nature and playing God.
Guillermo del Toro loves a good fairy tale, with familiar tropes and a moral rooted in classic parables. But he also loves to go a bit darker than we may be used to — his reference points veer closer to Grimm tales than sanitized Disney outings. It all makes for a beautifully contained little story with wide-reaching implications about human nature. And you can see echoes of it in all his films since.
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Watch Cronos on HBO Max
One can hardly call Cronos underappreciated. The then-young del Toro took home nine Ariel awards (think Mexican Oscars) including best picture the year it came out. And it went on to win numerous awards at Cannes and other international festivals.
Despite less success in the US, it did earn itself a Criterion Collection release in 2010. That’s certainly a mark of confidence from the cinephile class, cementing the film’s status as a contemporary classic.
But still, Cronos certainly hasn’t achieved the kind of mainstream popularity that Guillermo del Toro has earned elsewhere. He wouldn’t become a mainstream auteur until more than a decade later with Pan’s Labyrinth. But he was always working at an elevated level. He was ready to make it big as soon as Hollywood would just notice him.
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You can see his early themes and striking aesthetic in Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, The Shape of Water, and everything else he touches, from the fairytale logic of the narrative to the grotesque transformation of its protagonist to the intricate design of the Cronos device itself.
If you’ve loved even a single Guillermo del Toro film, you’re likely to get something out of it. Don’t sleep on your chance to watch Cronos on HBO Max.