Human beings did not need to know about vampires to realise that immortality might be a bad idea. Even when life was short and brutish, death was preferred to never ending existence. As the ending of Cronus makes clear, we need to die so that others can live, have space and achieve independent identity. Despite the faults of human beings, and there are many, we have understood this for some time. Henry James described death as something that made heroes of us all. James or perhaps someone else said it was the wonderful thing that we all do. The ending of Cronus states familiar philosophy, that the light of death will only be achieved through a willing acceptance of sacrifice and the love of and for others. The unoriginal ending, though, is handled with subtlety and sensitivity. The ending of Cronus confirms both the poetic ambition of the film and the talent of its makers.
Cronus was the first feature film to feature gifted Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. Since then he has mixed poetical horror like Pan’s Labyrinth and well made but uninspired Hollywood blockbusters like Hellboy and Blade. Cronus is a vampire movie but del Toro is not concerned with the vampire as an icon. Mexico may have social and economic problems but the dentistry appears to be traditional and adequate. Everyone has normal teeth. The movie references in Cronus echo Hitchcock rather than Hammer horror. As in Psycho, there are bathroom scenes and a car that disappears reluctantly. Guillermo del Toro concentrates on the themes that have ensured the vampire myth endures. These are immortality, ageing, decay, boredom, addiction, fetishism, loss and narcissism.
If immortality is achieved, ageing will be conquered but it will mean lives negated by boredom and spiritual decay. Boredom can be defied and challenged by ecstasy but this is always short lived and addictive. The dependency soon becomes self-harming. The weak willed when tempted by ecstasy can self-destruct but most of us seek routine activity and settle for subsequent loss and regret. An interest in objects is a diversion that gives us purpose but it is our vanity that allows us to confuse the appeal of objects with the power of life. We even think of ourselves as objects that have to be preserved, just like the items that we collect. Making ourselves into objects, the ultimate collectors item, allows us to feed our narcissism. All these ideas are in Cronus but they are hinted at rather than discussed. This is not a badly written episode of True Detective. There is no verbose detective who sits on a bench and stares at the sky before explaining what he studied in his first year at University.
The Cronus in the film is a timepiece that contains an insect whose appetite for blood extends life. The timepiece is an object and it arrives at the antique shop of owner Jesus Gris where it joins his other objects. In Spanish the word ‘gris’ means grey. The shop owner may be dull but his Christian name is Jesus. He will be tempted by resurrection. The rich businessman who also desires the timepiece is called Guardia. He wants to preserve, to keep both the timepiece and himself for eternity. The shop owner spends his life handling objects. When he sells an object, it takes him time to wrap what he sells, and the audience becomes aware of how the process of wrapping gifts resembles our own need to wear clothes. We dress objects as we dress ourselves. Humans are compelled to bestow glory on creatures and things.
The relationship of the shop owner to his granddaughter is important to the film. After Jesus Gris returns from dying he sheds skin. The granddaughter accepts him and does not feel disgust. Both del Toro and Steven Spielberg like to use children in their movies. Spielberg approves of their innocence and insists that because children are free of prejudice they will welcome his Disneyland version of liberalism. Del Toro is tougher. His children reject contrived adult reality. His children are aware of nightmare and horror and should not be ignored.
At the beginning of the film the grandfather and his granddaughter share a simple jigsaw puzzle. Objects link the generations but their meaning changes over time. Objects that became dull to adults are rediscovered and become interesting to children. The statue that houses the timepiece in the gothic pre-credit sequence is not quite the same as the statue that appears in the shop. The timepiece in the statue is called Cronus. It has metal claws that draw blood. This produces ecstasy for the shop owner and reinvigorates his health, appearance and sex drive. It also compels him to drink blood. The reaction of the granddaughter to the addiction of the grandfather is the same as that of her own dead father when he discovered that the shop owner used nicotine. Addictions not only redefine the users, they change others. In Dracula movies there are people who witness their relatives and friends become vampires. The relatives suffer torture and anguish. Narcissism may confuse us into thinking we are unique and have an exclusive entitlement to have all our appetites satisfied but, as Lucy Westenra discovered in Dracula, nobody makes decisions about ecstasy and routine in isolation.
In Cronus the cruel and decaying businessman who wants the timepiece to give him added life has a nephew. The younger man wants to inherit his money, and the businessman uses him to search for the unique timepiece. The younger man is played by Ron Perlman. Somebody must love him but Perlman is not a handsome man. He played the Beast in the American television series Beauty And The Beast. The nephew is obliged to be ugly but his human narcissism is evident. He wants plastic surgery for his nose. Multilingualism is a virtuous asset that aids communication between races and it even keeps dementia at bay. But second languages can mess up both scriptwriters and actors. The scenes between the grasping nephew and the self-obsessed uncle are in English and are the weakest in the film. Better are the scenes that feature the mortician. Coarsened by his job the Mexican mortician imagines nothing but surviving in a grim world that affords him no status. His reference to the after life is cynical but wary. The narcissism of the mortician is limited to excessive sideburns. Insensitive to the living, the dead and even himself he is not delicate. He stores used chewing gum on his braces. The mortician may be aware of heaven and hell but the bodies he prepares are nothing to him but spent meat.
Time is referred to often in the film. The party in the middle of the film takes place on New Year’s Eve. It may not have occurred to Jools Holland and his BBC producers yet but these celebrations are the most ironical and self-defeating in the calendar. Somehow the fatal mixture of alcohol and idiocy permits revellers to think that time is an asset and a blessing. Del Toro is more realistic. It is in a bathroom at the New Year’s Eve party that the shop owner has to acknowledge the price of his narcissism and his desire for youth. Glutinous for blood the shop owner ignores the bathroom mirrors and his degradation. Previously it was a mirror that promised him new delight and potential. In the party a performer walks around the party dressed as a giant clock. The wife of the shop owner earns money by teaching the tango to aspiring dancers. The tango is considered to be unique by aficionados. Many believe its measured rhythm is not designed to induce ecstasy but to merge pleasure with the patient acceptance of fate. Like everyone else in the film the wife of the shop owner has narcissistic insecurity. She worries about the extra weight, which is a consequence of time. The tango is part of her routine but it has limited powers.
The inability of the granddaughter to understand either death or its prospect enables her to support and assist her grandfather after he returns from dying. Only after death does the shop owner acquire the strength to resist the temptation of the timepiece. In one simple look he understands the future entitlement of the young and what it means for the old. Whether it is the memory of death that gives him strength to resist his narcissism and value the love of his granddaughter is for the audience to decide. It is the granddaughter that defeats the rich businessman. The granddaughter may be small and fragile but she has time and destiny on her side. And, like most children, she is also sneaky. Adults can only be guardians for so much and for so long. Without the sly knowing of children who need to insist that the future belongs to them the world could tilt in a way that would wreck us all.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His next book Choke Bay will be available this summer. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.