Well before the 'abstinence porn' of Twilight began to hit our screens, a whole wave of vampire films in the 1990s returned to the deep well of sex which had become the lifeblood of vampire fiction. We had Anne Rice's AIDS allegory Interview with a Vampire, John Landis' uneven crime drama Innocent Blood, and of course Francis Ford Coppola's bonkers version of Dracula.
But in the midst of these hypersexual offerings, a small Mexican film from a first-time director was helping to radically reshape the genre. Cronos, the debut by Guillermo Del Toro, demonstrated that vampire fiction could explore themes far more varied than sex, such as the fear of death, the loneliness of old age and the relationship between Mexico and the USA. A hugely influential work of horror cinema, it is every bit as striking and significant as Let The Right One In.
When I reviewed The Usual Suspects, I remarked that one test of a good filmmaker is being able to take a hackneyed series of conventions, and create something which is both memorable and mindful of its genre origins. On this level alone Cronos is a triumph, since it is able to fulfil all the requirements of being a bona fide vampire film which approaching all the key plot points and characters arcs from distinctively unusual angles.
Cronos may have a backstory about the origins of the vampire, followed by the introduction of our protagonists to said bloodsucker which results in quite a lot of gore. But Del Toro manages to achieve this while removing from the story all connotations of sex or lust. In place of Hammer's heaving bosoms and phallic fangs, he gives us skin peeling like wallpaper and the intricate clockwork of the Cronos device. The closest the film comes to anything sexual is a scene of Federico Luppi licking a nosebleed off a bathroom floor, which is shot with such clinical precision that there can be no room for erotic thoughts.
By refocusing the story around ageing and the fear of death, Cronos hits on the central dilemma in vampire fiction: would you rather live forever but lose your soul, or stay pure and human but live in constant fear of death? Both the elderly characters in the film choose the former, albeit for different motives and by entirely different means. Dieter, the dying businessman, makes a conscious decision to pursue the device: he owns the manual needed to operate it and believes it is the only thing that can keep him and his empire alive (and out of his nephew's hands).
Jesus, on the other hand, is 'bitten' accidentally, and only comes to use the device frequently through observing its physical benefits. His desire, in the form of addiction to blood, is every bit as strong as Dieter's desire to possess the device himself, but it is not motivated by selfishness or a desire for power. Like Dracula, Jesus becomes weary of eternal life: he is worn down not by an army of brides, but by the constant torment of those who are jealous of his powers. In the end his remaining sense of self triumphs over the vampire he has become, and he sacrifices himself to protect his beloved granddaughter.
The theme of ageing is also conveyed in the visuals of Cronos. Guillermo Navarro's cinematography is very washed-out, with dark woods and fading reds to indicate how everything around the characters is very slowly dying or decaying. Even the brightest scenes in the film, like the New Year's party, are filled with pale colours and make use of shadows wherever possible.
Beyond its direct connections with the vampire genre, Cronos is connected to other key figures in horror. The design of the Cronos device itself, with its peculiar blend of biology and mechanics, resembles the work of Clive Barker: its design as is intricate as the puzzle box in Hellraiser and there is the same suggestion of great evil being contained in or brought forth from something of great beauty.
There are also connections with John Carpenter in the film's elaborate and highly convincing make-up. Del Toro's training under make-up artist Dick Smith shines through in his pursuit of organic, physical terror, and the work of his make-up artist M. Carrajal rivals anything which Rob Bottin achieved on The Thing. There is a further connection with Carpenter contained in a line where the device is dismissed as "just a toy". Like Carpenter in Hallowe'en, Del Toro is taking an aspect of horror which had become institutionalised and accepted, and proving that it could still scare you to death.
Cronos is a deeply religious film, in its use of iconography and its exploration of the meanings to both life and death. Again, this is drawing on a classic trait in vampire fiction, namely that the act of being or becoming a vampire is a rebellion against the laws of nature (including death), which it was believed were set in stone by God. Though there is no scene of Jesus declaring war on heaven, as happens in the Coppola version, his faith is counterpointed by his growing dependence on the device, as demonstrated by him reciting the Lord's Prayer while allowing it to stab him a second time.
There are other indications of these religious themes as well. The Cronos device was created by an alchemist, someone who brought the material and spiritual worlds together, using what became the scientific method to find the divine substance which could cure all disease and prolong life. The images of cockroaches bursting out of angels, or the device being hidden in said statues, hints at the threat which such a device poses to Christianity. By removing the certainty of death, it undermines the corresponding fear of death and damnation, and therefore makes it less necessary either to repent or to live a moral life.
To add to its theological wrangling, Cronos also has political connotations. The film is a rich allegory for US-Mexican relations, in which America is the bloodsucker which takes without asking and refuses to yield. Dieter, the American, is determined not to let the Mexicans (in the shape of Jesus) get one over on them - the second they come up with something useful, the Americans want it for themselves and won't take no for an answer. There is a contrast between Federico Luppi's sympathetic, caring grandfather and Ron Perlman's aggressive and ambitious nephew. Perlman may slip in and out of Luppi's language, but he is only interested in himself - it is not communication, only giving orders in a language he thinks they can understand.
The performances in Cronos are mostly of a high quality. Luppi is a great screen presence, seeming frail and vulnerable while coming across as a strong and determined character. Perlman, in his first of several collaborations with Del Toro, is a very fine match for him. His versatility with language is matched only by his desire to throw himself physically into the role. The only weak link is the young girl, played by Tamara Shanath. It isn't so much her performance as the limited extent of her character's development; we don't feel as strongly connected to her as we do with her counterparts in The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth.
Cronos is a great debut feature from one of horror's greatest directors. While not as perfectly formed as Pan's Labyrinth, it contains all the hallmarks of Del Toro's genius, from its powerfully unique visuals to its constant invention and intelligence even in the most trivial of moments. It's a top-notch chiller and a welcome shot in the arm for vampire fiction, proving that the genre is still able to stimulate as well as scare. It's not Let The Right One In, but it should be welcomed into anyone's collection.