I watched Cronos (#10 on the Top 70 Vampire Movies of All Time list) with JP the other day. It’s directed by Guillermo del Toro so I had pretty high expectations. It was good but definitely not like the stuff he does now (Hell Boy, Pan’s Labyrinth). But, in true del Toro style, it does feature a child in horrific circumstances and that is really what stands at the heart of Cronos. In Pan’s Labyrinth, one of the central questions is whether or not Ofelia can trust Pan and, furthermore, whether or not Pan and her quest are actually just a manifestation of her attempts to survive the brutality of life with her sadistic stepfather. As Ofelia attempts to complete the three tasks set to her to prove her loyalty to Pan, she develops a secret second life with Pan that impinges more and more on her life with her sick mother and stepfather until the two finally overlap with tragic consequences.
In Cronos, Aurora is the sweet young granddaughter of Jesus Gris, an antiques dealer. Aurora only speaks one (powerful) word in the entire movie but it’s clear that she watches everything and misses nothing. She is also wise beyond her years, wiser, in some respects, than her grandfather. Jesus is our main character but, like Ofelia, Aurora and Jesus live in their own little bubble. Jesus is gentle and playful with Ofelia and the two spend quiet days together in Jesus’s antique store. But that all changes when Jesus notices a young thug taking a particular interest in the various angel statues he has in the shop. Curious as to why one statue in particular should attract such attention, Jesus and Aurora investigate and discover a golden scarab hidden inside. The audience knows from the prologue that this is the Cronos Device, a devilish instrument invented by an alchemist in the 1500s that grants its user eternal life. However, eternal life comes at a steep price and it becomes increasingly unclear who or what is the user and what is the used.
Cronos is undoubtedly creepy. The Device, when wound up, ticks away with insidious intent until six spiked legs suddenly pop out and attach themselves to whoever holds it. Even worse, as the ticking winds down, a scorpion-like tale emerges from the shell and plunges into the holder’s body, effectively trapping the user in its metallic grip. But the real horror of the film comes from unintended consequences that play out as a result of Jesus’s addiction to using the Device. What was once painful, becomes necessary and Jesus finds himself in increasingly desperate situations as he refuses to give up the scarab.
Making the Cronos Device a golden, mechanical scarab is actually a pretty efficient metaphor for conveying the more philosophical questions that underpin the movie. In ancient Egypt, the scarab was a icon symbol of the cycle of life, death and resurrection. In Greek mythology, Cronos was the leader of the Titans and the personification of time. He also swallowed his own children in an effort to prevent one of his sons from rising up and dethroning him, so that by consuming his children he extends his time infinitely. Using these two mythological backdrops allows the Cronos Device to raise such questions as What does it mean to live? What price is one willing to pay for immortality? Is immortality acceptable at any price? To what degree are adults willing to sacrifice their children for the satisfaction of their own desires? What obsessions motivate our choices at any given time? How does the fear of death and of the separation the death brings cause us to live our lives?
No glamorous vampires here — only desperate people committing desperate acts as their humanity peels away like shedding skin.