Indeed, a sense of the grotesque pervades the work of del Toro, similar to the biology-gone-bad motifs underscored in the horror films of Cronenberg, which avoid simplistic splatter horror and weepy macabre. Cronenberg unveils inversions, bodies that lack discreetness, wholeness, or harmony, like the underworld creature with eyes submerged in claw-like hands that del Toro features in Pan’s Labyrinth. Grotesque mutations abound in both directors’ work: in Naked Lunch, typewriter cockroaches and giant centipedes cause distinct anxiety; similarly, in The Fly, the melded human/fly hybrid severs his human chrysalis, the last vestiges of his former flimsy body, and panders to no politics, only his instinct, finally begging his lover to destroy the unnatural ‘other’ he has become; while Gris is a redemptive avenger whose morphing body turns the color of dirty chalk.
del Toro suggests a religious sense pervades his monsters, as well. A link might exist between the streamlined primitivism of insect hordes (a “disquieting mutability”, according to Atkinson) and the hollow workers of church and state:
…insects are as close as we come in the real world – insects and deep-sea creatures—to having monsters walk amongst us. I’m fascinated by biology; I always have been since I was a kid; I’m fascinated with anatomy …how these creatures have no real heart, they just have hollow chambers, they pump white blood, they have 6 or more eyes, they have 6 legs, they have a hard shell and have no skeleton. It’s wonderful. It’s an absolutely incredible design, and in that they are perfect and that makes them also incredibly scary. (“Outside The Frame: Guillermo del Toro Interview Part 1.” ThePhoenix.com, 2007)
The Cronos device evokes such mindless insect behavior, neo-religious entrapment, and body horror.
In a key scene, Gris discovers the intensity of his blood lust in the bathroom of a New Year’s Eve party, where he lies prone on the ground and proceeds to inch his tongue towards a small pool of blood left over from a partygoer’s nosebleed. I imagine bathrooms as liminal spaces, Bakhtinian zones, often coated in indiscreet latrinalia (graffiti), where expressions of lower bodily stratum – filthy and gurgling orifices—remain unrestrained behind temporarily closed doors. The “discharge” of blood in this scene predicates both Gris’ sickness and revitalization. Potent and intoxicating, life-giving and nourishing, and ultimately deadly, the blood may be a trope signifying the rampant AIDS crisis, when cravings for life-sustaining sex were undercut by the grim realities of blood, disease, and death.
The scene quickly cuts to confetti showering the crowd, almost as if the taste of blood induced an orgasm. The same party scene features a man dressed as a clock (the alchemist was a watchmaker, as well), revealing issues of temporality, the supposedly rigid constructs of time, and a haunting awareness of life’s limits. Yet, vampires— ‘creatures of the night’—blur such boundaries. Gris is undead and vigorous, monstrous and humane, inhuman (he morphs into marble gray skin features) and super-human (strong, eternal…). Vampires are grotesque, feeding on the blood of people, revealing a certain upside-down sexuality, as if erogenous zones had been re-located to the neck. Teeth become phallic chisels, mouths a vagina with teeth. In Cronos, specifically, the trope of the vampiric symbolizes the autocratic state bleeding wealth and resources, while the disease of commodity fetishism (desire for the beetle’s elixir) overpowers humanity.
Inversions inhabit the film. Gris rises after death by car wreck-cum-assassination (just as the spirit of rebel leaders pervades the public after martyrdom, including Christ, Che Guevara, etc); from then on he sleeps not in a coffin but in the toy trunk of his granddaughter, surrounded by stuffed animals, among items of pleasure, just as he too is stuffed, engorged on the elixir of the beetle, and has become, like the imaginary animals, re-animated and alive. The little girl hides his beetle in the cottony interior of one of her stuffed bears, symbolizing, it appears, how Gris, too, has been reworked from the inside: injected, mutated, and reborn by a man-made device. Throughout the film, Angel is also obsessed with a nose job, even suffers a broken nose twice, while Gris discovers that he is shedding skin and forming an unnatural re-conditioning of his body, like a tough hide. Lastly, as Gris makes his way through his post-death second life, he wears his suit backwards, an unnatural variant that perhaps signifies his inversion, since he appears backwards and twisted.
With Cronos, del Toro colonizes and remixes postcolonial film genres, explores anxieties about the nature of the human body while simultaneously exploring the body politic of capitalism, and weaves together issues like AIDS and fetish commodities. In our current geo-political climate, including gang-land and government agency tortures, devastating drug wars and aberrant foreign policies, the harvesting of body parts from exploited poor and downtrodden people, and harrowing tales of mutations due to disasters (like Chernobyl, Bhopal, the gulf oil spill, etc.) and chemicals reeking throughout our biosphere, not to mention DNA experiments, Cronos is both a poetic commentary and genuinely frightening lens. Criterion Collection has brought this compelling film forth in a package offering: new commentary from the director; a booklet featuring original notes from the film and engaging film insight by writer Maitland McDonagh; an unreleased and newly completed ‘80s short horror film from the director; as well as other noteworthy features.