[26 March 2012]
Who else is bored with vampires? Not so long ago this question would have seemed, to this horror fan at least, an affront. How could anyone become bored by vampires? How about when there is too many of them? Or when they’re just not monstrous enough? Or maybe all of the above?
While contemporary popular culture may be a while off from reclaiming the vampire from romance back to horror, one can always look elsewhere to find vampires with meaning, menace and true innovation.
Jesus Gris from Guillermo del Toro’s masterful work of art-horror, Cronos (1993) is such a vampire. Deeply rooted in religious and folkloric archetypes, this profoundly symbolic film is the first feature for the Mexican director and it is a vampire story unlike any other. Cronos delves right into the heart of vampiric lore, forging new and fascinating paths into its own folklore as it examines the bleak and very human sadness and loneliness of the grotesque transformation of Gris. While del Toro has claimed influence from some more visceral horror sources, the Hammer Horror films in particular, Cronos is much mor folkloric, more of a spiritual or at least religious horror film. Through its use of Catholic themes and motifs, Cronos represents a connection between vampiric horror and religion which is really all about the inescapable connection of life and death that all of us must face.
Cronos breaks down like this: In 1536 an alchemist and official watchmaker to the Viceroy fashioned the Cronos Device, a mysterious apparatus that grants him eternal life. Some four hundred years later Jesus Gris (Frederico Luppi), an unsuspecting antiques dealer, finds the device and accidentally activates its supernatural clockwor, infecting himself with the vampiric disease. Gris begins to change—looking younger, feeling more virile. He’s sensitive to light, he craves blood and he is eventually unable to die. As the transformations take place, his young granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath), watches the changes in her beloved Grandfather and does her best to help him and keep his secret despite the danger he presents to her. Meanwhile, unscrupulous American, Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman) wants the Cronos Device to save his dying uncle, and like all good villains, he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants.
The Cronos Device is the focal point of the film. It’s a remarkably weird and beautiful thing. A golden, egg-shaped capsule, with delicate and intricate engravings, six spring loaded insectoid legs and a scorpion-like stinger that transmits the vampiric infection and in turn feeds the mysterious vampiric insect within. Cinema legend has it that in pre-production, the Device was deemed to expensive to create and the idea was abandoned before del Toro sold his own van to fund its construction. Eventually, thirteen Cronos Devices were made for the film, each and every one of them stolen from the set during shooting.
The device is layered with symbolism connected to the entire meaning of the film in an eternal and paradoxical conflict between life and death. When its legs are engaged the device resembles a scarab beetle, an ancient Egyptian symbol of renewal and rebirth. The shape of the device also represents an egg, an ancient and widespread symbol of new life and fertility. The wind up mechanism that activates the device is decorated with the Ouboros (or Uroboros), an image of a snake biting its own tail, an ancient symbol of immortality and also the unending cycle of life. The device was made by a watchmaker, it winds and ticks like a clock. Engraved on its surface are the words ‘suo tempore’, translated as ‘everything will happen in its own time’. The device is all about life, eternal rebirth and the movement of time, but at the same time, its vampiric nature is a total corruption of this. The vampire is born from life, that is blood. But it is born into death and eternally lives in death.
The inspiration for the Cronos vampire came to del Toro after reading the Vampire Treatises of Dom Augustin Calmet, a priest who centuries ago wrote about miniature, tick like vampires. Insect imagery features heavily in many of del Toro’s films and Cronos is no different both with the allusions to the scarab and the insect within that transmits the vampiric disease. Working with an idea of insects that infect the victim’s nervous system, del Toro claims he wanted to create in Cronos a type of plausible vampire, far removed from the elegant and sophisticated vampires of the European and Dracula traditions. The vampiric lore he defined in Cronos is much like the vampirism del Toro would later develop in his novel, The Strain (2009); an infectious and debilitating disease that really isn’t all that far fetched. Jesus Gris, however, is nowhere near the realm of monstrousness of The Strain. Gris isn’t like any other vampire that we have ever before encountered.
There are some standard vampire tropes in Cronos—Gris is photosensitive, he feels a bloodlust and has eternal life, but these are all given a unique slant. Besides his disease, Gris is the same as he ever was. He’s monstrous, but not a monster, he’s not a cool Dracula figure, he’s not a zombie like vampire like something from 30 Days of Night. What’s interesting about Gris in the context of Post-Meyer, Post-Harris vampire culture is that while Jesus Gris is a sympathetic vampire like the Cullens and the Bills and Erics, he loses none of the horror grotesque that marks the horror genre and has been sorely absent in popular vampires of late. Gris’ grotesque is a physical attribute. Underneath this living rot he’s still a man. More than that, he’s still a grandfather.
Catholicism is deeply entwined in Cronos. Jesus Gris becomes infected with this almost-believable vampire syndrome after the Cronos Device latches onto his hand and pierces his palm. Would anyone convincingly deny this is an allusion to the stigmata? Eternal life, dozens of statues of angels as well as Angel the character; do I even have to mention the name Jesus Gris? These are all completely obvious religious motifs. Christianity and vampires have been tangled for centuries. I won’t be the first nor the last to draw a parallel between the story of Jesus and vampiric lore. Like a vampire, Jesus rose from he dead. Like a vampire, Jesus exists in a type of eternal life. Like a vampire, Jesus offered his blood and his flesh (albeit metaphorically), to his disciples to consume at the Last Supper in the act that is re-enacted in the ritual of Catholic Communion. The connections between vampire and Christian lore also extend beyond the direct story of Jesus. There are stories of Judas Iscariot being the first vampire; stories of the Children of Judas vampiric cult formed by the offspring of Judas. In the medieval era, members of the clergy were employed as official vampire hunters. We have crucifixes and holy water as weapons against the undead, and tales of vampires unable to step on consecrated earth all as canonical elements of vampiric tradition. While Cronos does not directly engage with the more usual vampire/Christian hallmarks of crucifixes and holy water, the film does not do away with the connection between vampire horror and religion. And perhaps that’s because it cannot.
The primal connection between horror and religion has been theorized and explored countless times in just as many films, books and other texts, Cronos included. To attempt to understand this primal connection, we first need to consider both within the context of culture. Culture, put simply, is as a way we understand the world. We use things like language and other symbolic systems (fashion, music, art, design—everything!) to situate ourselves within the world. Religion is such a system, used to understand the world, our lives and the relationship between the two. There’s a theory of horror that suggests that horror occurs when these symbolic systems are broken or challenge. According to this idea, horror is what lives outside of culture; it is what happens when culture deteriorates. But is this too simple, too black and white to be accurate?
It has already been mentioned that Christianity and vampire lore, or vampiric horror are inexorably bound on numerous levels. Religion, specifically for our purposes Catholicism with its concepts of hell, demonology, exorcisms and the like, challenges horror just as equally as horror challenges religion. Further, much religious experience centers on the concept of death and the afterlife. Whether it is a more Eastern philosophy of reincarnation, or the Christian ideas of heaven and hell, these beliefs give death a purpose and provide life with a sense of continuity, and a great deal of horror, particularly vampire and other ‘eternal-life’ horrors tap into these concepts and explore the inherent contradictions. In this conflict of horror and religion, horror and culture cannot be outside of the other. Del Toro himself sums it up nicely by taking the connection between culture and horror down to the singular human level: “I think that one of the things that monsters represent is everything that is fallible, perishable, flawed, distorted about our nature.”
Horror is culture. It is a symbolic system that we use to explore different facets of the nature of our existence. Horror is all of the things about our world and our understanding of the universe that are too frightening, too repulsive to see or show in the light of the everyday.
This ties nicely into the idea that horror is an awareness of our physical being, a focus on deterioration rather than growth and facing the fact that our bodies are ultimately fragile, organic things easily decayed and destroyed. And it’s never a pretty process. This organic theory of horror (Morgan) is more than applicable to the undead horrors of vampires and zombies, and this emphasis on the ‘un-life’, as opposed to the undead, is precisely what the new breed of romanticized vampires lack. Cronos delves right into this horror with the gradual peeling skin and rotting flesh of the undead Gris and the deteriorating body of the dying uncle. This decay and deterioration represents the conflict and at the same time the simultaneity of life and death that the Cronos Device embodies. This is the true horror that attacks our understanding of the world and our place in it, also our very physical place in it as human beings, reminding us of all the blood and guts that being human is all about. Just because we’re scared or repulsed, it doesn’t mean we need to hide or ignore these horrors, or struggle to separate them into clear and distinct categories. Like Aurora continued to love and accept her beloved grandfather after he was transformed into a rotting monster, even though she feared what he had become, so too does horror and religious culture operate on that same dichotomy. As visceral as it is existential and spiritual, Cronos represents this inseparability of life and death and the fear that unbreakable connection inspires, that is embodied in each of us. Its vampiric disease is just the antidote we need against the banalities of contemporary vampire culture.