Blu-ray Edition

Reviews by Gordon Justesen, Ed Nguyen, and Michael Jacobson

Director:  Guillermo Del Toro
Audio:  DTS HD 2.0 and 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1 and 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  319 Minutes
Release Date:  October 18, 2016

Cronos ***

It's a real treat to see where certain filmmakers got their start, especially in the case of Guillermo del Toro. One of the most visually imaginative storytellers of our generation, del Toro has applied an amazing visual style all his own in films such as Blade II, Hellboy and the Oscar-nominated Pan's Labyrinth. This is also certainly present in Cronos, his 1993 debut feature.

And it is del Toro's visceral filmmaking gift that is truly the saving grace of this film, which under the direction of anyone else would've probably turned up as a corny, straight to video release. The fact is, by simple description, the plot of Cronos sounds like something you'd expect from the likes of Full Moon Entertainment. But del Toro's visual mastery and establishing of a remarkably dark atmosphere (which has become a trademark of his ever since) elevate it to a more credible cinematic level.

The story opens with the history surrounding a mystery and horrific invention known as the cronos device. Created by a 14th century Spanish alchemist, the device looks like a Faberge egg crossed with a beetle. It's claws open and inject a substance into human flesh that will result in eternal life.

We then switch over to the present, where we meet Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), an antiques dealer who has come into possession of the cronos device. Not so long after he comes to discover the power this device possesses, Jesus is confronted by De la Guardia (Claudio Brook). He's a power-hungry industrial figure, who simply wants the cronos device simply because he feels he deserves it over anyone else.

A good majority of the story involves Jesus being pursued by De la Guarida's nephew, Angel (Ron Perlman), who's been dispatched to capture the device. During the course of this pursuit, things take a turn for the bizarre and ultimately strange. I must say that I was caught by surprise a number of times by the directions the story took.

This, of course, is a testament to Guillermo del Toro's inventive genius. He avoids numerous cliches that are normally associated with Mexican horror, like that of vampires and Aztec mummies, and uses atmosphere, cinematography and one of a kind special effects to accompany this not-so-typical horror piece.

His unique crafting of horror stories would find itself in all of del Toro's later work. This would include his much neglected American follow up release, Mimic, which was definitely one of the more original horror stories involving mutated insects. And del Toro's amazing craftsmanship has only gotten stronger with Pan's Labyrinth and the immortal classic, Blade II (why hasn't this hit Blu-ray yet????)

To sum up, Cronos is a superb directorial debut from a man with a pure filmmaking gift. Fans of Ron Perlman (who I should point out is young-looking while entirely recognizable) are certainly not going to be disappointed as he delivers what you'd expect from him in the villainous role. Most importantly, it illustrates how a low budget can produce astonishing results when in the right hands, and del Toro has worked wonders with limited money, as all he ever needs is his imagination!

The Devil's Backbone *** 1/2

In the mid-1990's, director Guillermo del Toro burst upon the international stage with his horror tale, Cronos.  It was a witty, modern revision of the familiar vampire tale, featuring a magical artifact that transforms a gentile old man into a vampire.  While somewhat uneven, Cronos was nevertheless a critical success, paving the way for del Toro's later films.  American audiences will probably be acquainted with his subsequent mainstream efforts (Mimic, Blade 2).  However, del Toro's most accomplished work to date remains his third film, a delicate European supernatural chiller - El Espinazo del Diablo (a.k.a. The Devil's Backbone).

Released in 2001 in America, this award-winning horror film came and went without much fanfare.  Nevertheless, it left an undeniable impression upon those fortunate enough to catch it in the theaters.  While not solely a horror film, The Devil's Backbone incorporated many elements of the ghost story into its tale, as unfolded through the point of view of a young child.

That child is Carlos (Tielve, in his first film role), and he is utterly alone in the world, having been orphaned by the ravages of the Spanish Civil War.  Men sympathetic to the Republican cause have spirited Carlos away to the Santa Lucia School, a lone bastille situated in the vast emptiness of barren fields far removed from most other settlements.  The school is secretly a refuge for orphans of the war, yet it hides even darker mysteries.  Somewhere on its grounds lies a treasure trove of gold, the wealth of the Republican militia.  The head mistress knows of its location but refuses to divulge her knowledge.  The most mysterious secret of all, as Carlos quickly learns, is the rumor of a ghost - the restless spirit of a lost child.  The other children refer to him only as "one who sighs."  Though they do not know his exact identity, they hesitantly point out that Carlos now occupies what was once the bed of a child named Santi, who disappeared around the time the ghost first appeared.  One older child in particular, the initially antagonistic Jaime (Garcés), seems to know more about Santi's disappearance and the ghost than he will reveal.

Other dangers abound.  In the school's courtyard, battered and half-buried into the earth, rests a huge bomb.  An intruder one night from the darkened skies above, it lies un-detonated in the courtyard.  Too bulky to move, too dangerous to disassemble, it is a constant remainder of the death that follows the children's every footsteps, here within the school and beyond in the distant fighting.  The greed of men will trouble them too, for fortune hunters, made aware of the Republican treasure, seek it for their own, and they do not mean to let a few teachers or malnourished children stand in their way.

Sanction within the confines of this orphanage school, then, is not truly safe.  One evening, Carlos wonders from the dormitory to fill a pitcher of water, though it is forbidden to wander out after curfew.  When Jacinto (Noriega), the school's young handyman, enters the kitchen after hearing suspicious noises in the courtyard, Carlos is forced to hide.  And from the kitchen, there only one place to run - down the stairs into the cellar.

A cellar is a good place to find a ghost!  Carlos wanders down and comes within a hair's breath of encountering the ghost.  It is actually his second near run-in with the ghost, which has been observing him carefully since his arrival.  Soon enough, the ghost will materialize for real and will offer a chilly prophetic warning: "Many of you will die."

As the days pass, Carlos begins to suspect the truth about this ghost.  The signs seem to point to Jaime's involvement.  Did Santi run away?  Or was he murdered?  And if so, how did he die?  Are Santi and the ghost one and the same?  If Jaime knows the answer, he will not reveal it.

In a mysterious way, Santi's disappearance, the hauntings, and the search for the hidden fortune are all somehow linked.  Some of the characters are not what they seem, either; friends may become villains, while enemies may become allies in the end.

In general, the film derives its narrative impulse from the children.  They create the legend surrounding the ghost, and events which transpire throughout the film are often seen or interpreted through their eyes.  Even Jacinto, the young handyman, was once an orphan himself at this school not too long ago.  His sad past and his tormented inner feelings make him in many ways the tragic character of the film, even though Carlos is its central character.

The other adults in the film are supporting characters, but they are well developed and well-portrayed.  The school mistress, as played by Marisa Paredes, is a world-weary woman, caught in the struggles of this Civil War despite her better judgment.  Federico Luppi (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Christopher Lee) plays the head professor, an emotionally impotent man who nevertheless provides a key father figure for the young children.

The Devil's Backbone will trace the final days of some of these characters.  True to its warning, the ghost's prophecy will be horribly realized, though perhaps not in a way that is expected.  In fact, the film may be considered a dramatic film with horror overtones, rather than a straight-forward fright fest.  There are certainly a number of frightening scenes, but the essence of the film is in its involving storyline and its sympathetic characters.  Even the ghost, as horrible as its appearance may be, is not the wholly evil creature it initially seems.

In a sense, the film is about abandonment or the loneliness of the path not taken.  Much of the despair in the film involves the loss of loved ones or even betrayal by loved ones.  This emotional depth provides a tragic resonance that most horror films lack.  Furthermore, the film's emphasis upon the children draws the audience closer to these characters, as though by a collective empathy we may spirit them away to safety.

The Devil's Backbone was a labor of love for del Toro.  Written fifteen years prior to its eventual filming, it is a mature and intelligent movie that is not afraid to mix in drama or a dash of childhood adventure into its horror.  For viewers who enjoy European-style horror, The Devil's Backbone may be a film well worth discovering.

Pan's Labyrinth ****

You could reach into a grab bag of adjectives and find just about any that would fit Pan’s Labyrinth.  Beautiful?  Horrifying?  Sweet?  Sad?  Violent?  Tragic?  Triumphant?  An unqualified ‘yes’ to all.

Guillerma del Toro has crafted an unusual and unforgettable picture, one that took home three Oscars but also captured the imaginations, hearts and spirits of audiences around the world.  Almost everyone I know saw the movie ahead of me, and all of them loved it, but all of them also said it was practically impossible to describe.

Well, I can’t use that as a cop-out.  I’m a critic, so offering a digestible description to you is my job.  But it’s rarely been this hard.  The easiest tag I can place on the movie is that it’s a fairy tale for grown-ups, but that’s like saying Lord of the Rings is about a piece of jewelry.

Del Toro’s story takes place in fascist Spain in 1944, as dictator Franco is tightening his grip on the countryside.  But the story actually begins with a piece of narration…a fantasy about a princess from an underground world who wanted to come to the surface and become human, but she died in the process.  We are told since that day her father has waited for signs of her inevitable return.

Enter young Ofelia (the remarkable Baquero).  She loves fairy tales, but her life couldn’t be further from one.  She is traveling across country with her pregnant mother Carmen (Gil).  Her father was killed, and they are going to live with Carmen’s new husband, the ruthless Captain Vidal (Lopez).

Vidal is charged with hunting down and destroying the last of the resistance against Franco, and his methods are heartless, cold, and efficient.  It doesn’t take long to realize that not even the innocent little Ofelia can stay safe if she ever crosses this brutal man.

But while the world around her seems to be coming to an end, Ofelia discovers a fairy, who leads her to a secret in a nearby labyrinth.  There is a faun who tells her she may very well be the princess we heard about in the opening, and gives her a series of dangerous tasks to carry out in order to prove she is the long awaited one.

The two stories couldn’t be further apart in substance, but they mesh remarkably well.  Fairy tales, after all, are not quite the soft, quiet, harmless little fluffs of magic we think of them as.  Look again.  They are often frightening, filled with violent images and dark ideas, and put children in real peril.  Ofelia’s story is no different.  There is danger and even death in her world, both the one around her in life and the one inside the labyrinth.

This is a work of sheer imagination and genius, and del Toro juxtaposes ideas and images you could never imagine working together until you see them for yourself.  He claims in the intro to the original DVD that the movie almost killed him.  It probably isn’t an exaggeration.  Rarely do you get to see a film where so much of the director’s heart and soul is laid bare on the screen for you, and even rarer is the one that comes across as such a dark, unsettling yet strangely beautiful slice of fantasy.

This movie will move you.  It will haunt you.  It will never leave you once you see it.  That makes it one of the best films of its year, or frankly, just about any year.

Video ****

Criterion delivers a superb job delivering the goods on three very visual films.  Colors in both light and dark settings are clean and natural.  There is nothing in the way of grain or compression artifacts marring these efforts.  Images are crystal clear and sharply rendered throughout.

Audio ****

The audio quality increases with each movie, but none, even the simple stereo surround of Cronos, leaves much to be desired.  Dynamic range, music, and spoken words are all sharp and clear thanks to DTS HD renderings.

Features ****

This set is packed, including:


Criterion scores again with Trilogia de Guillermo Del Toro.  Three of the master's most unforgettable works and incredible packaging make for one of the year's best releases.

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