‘Jesus Christ is a vampire’
(Cronos, Guillermo del Toro, Mexico, 1993, 94 mins)
Most filmmakers dealing in vampire fiction have a tendency to ignore a certain fact. Guillermo del Toro, on the other hand, has embraced it as a major aspect of his debut film Cronos. The fact is this: Vampires have a lot in common with Jesus Christ. ‘Drink my blood, and you’ll gain eternal life’ are the words of Dracula, but an altered version of that statement was, of course, written down much earlier in the New Testament. But not even the creator of the modern vampire myth, Bram Stoker, noticed this mythical overlap.
Stoker’s Dracula was evil lurking in the shadows, rarely appearing anywhere else but in the protagonists’ nightmares; a symbol of hidden vice and thirst for blood, not salvation. While the repressed sexuality in that Victorian novel has been pulled to the forefront in later film adaptations, being a vampire is still a shameful business, even if you’re a goodlooking one like Lestat from Interview With The Vampire or the Twilight saga’s Edward Cullen.
At first glance, it seems like del Toro wants to turn that notion upside down by naming his Mexican protagonist Jesús Gris. A common first name in Hispanic countries and a surname which sounds a lot like Christ – but only in English. In Spanish, which is the other language spoken in Cronos, ‘gris’ is pronounced differently and means grey, implying old age and decay as well as a grey and uncertain area between life and death, good and evil. Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) must choose between the two when the Cronos offers him eternal life as a vampire, much like the Devil tempted the biblical Jesus Christ with worldly riches and power.
The Cronos is a gold mechanical scarab, a shiny and secretive animal with six sharp legs that bite into its victim’s flesh whereby an inner maze of cogwheels suddenly springs to life. We fly through this complex mechanical system, dodging protruding bits of metal like a bi-plane dodges mountain peaks.
Despite this sense of adventure when inside the Cronos, vampirism remains a symbol of the dark side; a force which has kept the scarab’s ancient creator alive through disgusting decapitations and blood-letting. In other scenes, the magical instrument itself is clearly wicked if we are to trust the bugs that crawl out of its hiding place. And even though the Cronos’ new victim, Jesús Gris, is a sympathetic character, a kindhearted grandfather that gets in way over his head, his supernatural powers only make him an outcast – like Jesus Christ, but without God on his side. His resurrection comes only when he destroys the Cronos, and daylight, through the voice of his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath), breaks through.
Therefore, Cronos is not a film about Christ, but a man who thinks that he can become a Christ-like figure and sees his arrogance turn on him. Gris is an old man, an antiques dealer even, who becomes a Faust by accident and ends up admiring himself in the mirror after his first rejuvenating bite from the Cronos. Del Toro punishes this kind of vanity. A henchman, Angel (Ron Perlman), who tries to steal the scarab on behalf of his dying millionaire uncle, De La Guardia (Claudio Brook), is desperate to get a nose job, but instead gets punched in the face several times.
Technology, it would seem, can lead people to think that they are gods, whether with the heavenly goal of looking better through plastic surgery or avoiding death through dark magic. De La Guardia’s home already looks like a hospital with its cold blues, X-rays on the walls and the man’s own organs in jars. Not only can he not accept his own mortality, he is also alienated from his family to the point where his own nephew wishes him dead. It is a much better life in the warm and golden glow of the Gris household, where the old world still exists, and death is, literally speaking, an illuminating family occasion. Only when Jesús comes out at night do the colours and music darken and prepare us for a fight between good and evil.
Despite these cues, Cronos never feels like an adventure film propagating tradition and good old family values, just like Murnau’s Nosferatu nor Coppola’s Dracula did not do a very good job of promoting marriage and monogamy. Being a vampire is still too damn sexy, what with all that red meat and blood that Gris suddenly becomes so fond of, and the way he reignites the fire between him and his wife, Mercedes (Margarita Isabel). The nightlife of a vampire might be dark and gloomy, but it has its benefits, the film seems to say, when the golden colours from the antiques shop inexplicably turn up inside the shiny cronos as it digs its insect legs into Gris’ flesh.
As mentioned earlier, ‘gris’ only makes sense as a substitute for “Christ” when it is said in English. ‘I am Jesús Gris!’, the old man exclaims at the peak of his vampire career. For him, total moral corruption is accompanied by a change of language, and only the Spanish word ‘abuelo’, meaning “grandfather”, can bring him to his senses. It is Aurora’s word, her only one in the entire film, and it appeals to both Gris’ familial obligations and cultural background.
De La Guardia already speaks English, despite his Hispanic family name, and is therefore polluted by a culture which seems to think that an old and grey man can become Christ. Ultimately, he cannot, but it is an alluring thought, and one that could potentially subvert a whole country of antiques dealers, family men and stoic seniors on their deathbeds. After all, del Toro does not specify an alternative to eternal damnation apart from a vague dawn that looks too much like the proverbial bright light at the end of the tunnel. There is hardly any mention of the biblical Jesus Christ, and avoiding evil is therefore not about following any saviour, but hanging on to personal moral beliefs and relationships. As with any good modern vampire tale, Cronos is quick to point out that this is indeed a grey area.