Sunday, October 26, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: Cronos

Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) – a character whose name screams “religious subtext” – is a sixty-something antiques dealer and carer to his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath). One day he finds a device in the statue of an angel; said object – the Cronos device of the title – looks like a snuff box designed by the Cenobites. It releases arm-like needles which clamp around his hand and penetrate his skin. The Cronos device, Jesus learns, contains a lot of clockwork and a very old insect (it’s been around since 1536); the insect produces a secretion which rejuvenates the blood, but at a price.

Reclusive millionaire Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) knows all about the price: he’s a rich man and he’s prepared to go to any lengths to get his hands on the Cronos device. Unlike Jesus, however, Dieter owns the instruction manual and is cognisant of the very strict rules around its use. He dispatches his thuggish nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) to recover it by any means.

All Jesus knows about the device is that it leaves him feeling (and looking) younger. Vitality and sexual appetite reappear. He also finds himself hankering for blood. When he refuses to give over the Cronos device to Dieter and Angel, despite his shop being trashed as a warning, Angel steps up the campaign of victimisation and gives Jesus a beating. Same outcome: Jesus won’t play ball. Angel stages a car accident and leaves Jesus for dead. (And you have no idea how weird it is glancing back at that last sentence, particularly if you ignore the context.)

Hands up everyone who’s guessed he’ll come back from the dead? Hands up everyone who’s twigged that the very small and serious Aurora will welcome him back, totally unfreaked-out by his condition, and assist in his endeavours? Hands up everyone who’s intuited that said endeavours involve some unfinished business between Jesus and the de la Guardias?

‘Cronos’ adheres so doggedly to its three act structure – Jesus’s obsession with the Cronos device, ending in his “death”; Jesus as vampire, struggling to cope with being undead; Jesus vs the de la Guardias – that its hour an a half running time doesn’t leave adequate space to explore any of the ideas or issues that each of these stages deal with. Barely has Jesus’s dependence on the device been established, at the trade off of age-reversal for a taste for blood, than he’s Angel de la Guardia’s hands and there’s been no attempt to explore the cost to his essential dignity of being revitalised. A scene in a men’s room where he’s just beginning to struggle with blood-lust and is effectively prepared to debase himself in order to get his fix is curtailed bluntly and viciously and any further exploration of the theme goes with it.

Act two fares better, and there are several subtle touches (particularly the backwards-worn funeral suit) that neatly suggest that being undead is ultimate dignity. Likewise, there’s a lovely moment where the now fully-vampiric Jesus seeks shelter with his granddaughter. Intuiting that sunlight negatively affects him, Aurora hides him in a big wooden trunk formerly used to store her playthings. The innocence of childhood in the toybox as makeshift coffin. There’s a similarly effective moment where Aurora hides the Cronos device in a teddy bear, which she offers to Jesus as much as something to hug for comfort as a hiding place for the vessel of his addiction.

Sadly, all such grace notes go out of the window for the finale. Ideas about addiction, immortality, obsession and religion quickly follow. A film that had the potential to be the thinking audience’s horror movie – and in a scattering of brief moments almost gets a toehold – finally comes down on the side of safe genre tropes and keeps its villains to the fore (director Guillermo del Toro, in his feature debut, seems half in love with Angel, a character who alternately snarls at peoples and beats them up) and loses focus on its fascinating, flawed, sad and sympathetic protagonist.

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