A 16th century alchemist builds a device called the Cronos that enables its user to live forever - although it also gives them an inconvenient lust for blood. When the device resurfaces, it is accidentally picked up by an antiquarian - unaware that a dying millionaire will do anything to get his hands on it.
This debut feature from 29-year-old Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is a witty, stylish and imaginative variation on the vampire movie.
In a bravura prologue, a 16th Century alchemist constructs a weird clock-like device which enables him to live on into the 1930s before he is killed in a collapsing building. But the discovery of a corpse suspended upside down in his apartment suggests his bid for immortality has been bought at the usual price - the sacrifice of human blood - and that whoever comes into possession of the Cronos is in for a hard time of it.
Cue the arrival of Jesus Gris (Lubbi), an old antiques seller who runs a shop in Mexico with only his granddaughter for company. After a stream of beetles escape from a hole in one of his statues, he discovers, nestling inside, the Cronos - an encrustation of gold, spun around a living vampiric insect which feeds off his host by stabbing metal spikes into their veins. Jesus soon clamps the creature to his chest and begins to surprise his family with his sprightly air and youthful looks. The plot involves a battle for the Cronos fought between Jesus and a dying cadaverous industrialist, and the scenes in the industrialist's chamber - which looks like some sort of hi-tech morgue - provide some of the strongest and most authentically baroque images in the film.
Otherwise, especially towards the end where del Toro slips into more familiar genre territory, the imagery has a trashier feel. But with spot-on pulp dialogue, simple, poetic imagery and gothic sound effects, this is nothing short of a near-masterpiece.
This is a wonderfully baroque, gleeful subversion of the days of Hammer. A unique, terrifying mini-masterpiece.
Reviewed by Steve Beard