In the year 1536, an alchemist in Veracruz developed a mechanism that could give eternal life. In 1937, an old building collapsed and the alchemist, who has marble-white skin, is killed when his heart is pierced by the debris. Investigators never revealed what else was discovered in the building: basins filled with blood from a corpse.
In the present, an old antique dealer, Jesús Gris, notices that the base of an archangel statue is hollow. He opens it and finds a 450-year-old mechanical object. After winding the ornate, golden, scarab-shaped device, it suddenly unfurls spider-like legs that grip him tightly, and inserts a needle into his skin which injects him with an unidentified solution.
A living insect — entombed within the device and meshed with the internal clockwork — produces the solution. It is explained that insects share many characteristics involving immortality and holy people including Jesus Christ. However, Gris is unaware of this detail until later. Eventually, he discovers that his health and vigor are returning in abundance, as is his youth. His skin loses its wrinkles, his hair thickens and his sexual appetite increases. However, he also develops a thirst for blood. This at first disgusts him, but he eventually succumbs to the temptation. He then uses the device later that night, but says his nightly-prayer as he does. His granddaughter Aurora notices this, and begins to worry about Gris.
Meanwhile, a rich, dying businessman, Dieter de la Guardia, who has been amassing information about the device for many years, has been searching for the archangel statue with the cronos device. He has appropriated several archangels already. He sends his thuggish nephew Angel, who allows his uncle's abuse on a daily basis for an inheritance, to purchase the archangel at the antique shop.
During a party, Gris sees blood on a men's room floor and decides to lick it. Angel finds Gris and tries to beat him into giving up the device. When Gris faints, Angel places his body inside a car and pushes it off a cliff. Gris briefly awakens bleeding to death, and prays for survival. He unfortunately dies but later revives and escapes from an undertaker's establishment before he can be cremated. He later reads the program for his funeral and steps on a glass bottle shard. He pulls the shard out of his foot and uses it to open his mouth which had been sewn shut. He returns to his home where Aurora lets him in. Dieter beats Angel for not ensuring Gris's heart was destroyed, and sends him off to check on the body. Gris works on a letter to his wife in which he comments on the changes that his body has made and tells her that after completing some 'unfinished business' he will return to her. He notices that his skin burns in the presence of sunlight and sleeps in a box to avoid it.
Eventually, he and Aurora bring the device to Dieter's business headquarters, where the businessman offers him a "way out" in exchange for the device. Gris comments on his damaged skin and the businessman tells him to peel it off because he has new skin underneath, which is marble-white like the dead alchemist. Gris threatens to destroy the device, but is told that he will die should that happen. Gris agrees to hand it over in exchange for knowing the "way out", whereupon Dieter stabs him. Before being able to strike the killing blow to the chest, Dieter is incapacitated by Aurora. The mortally wounded Dieter is found and killed by his nephew, Angel, who is tired of his abuse and waiting for his inheritance. Angel confronts Gris on the rooftop of the building and beats him severely. Gris throws them both off the roof, killing Angel.
Aurora finds Gris unconscious, and uses the device to wake him up. Upon awakening, Gris is tempted to feed off his granddaughter, when he notices her hand bleeding. Gris grabs Aurora with his mouth gapping open and a lifeless look in his eyes, which makes her fearfully say "grandfather". The thirst seems to be too much for Gris to handle, but he eventually backs off. He then painfully destroys the device, despite previous warnings. Surprised to still be alive, he believes God to have saved him because of his attempted self-sacrifice. He repeats his name to himself, and returns to his home. He lies in bed with Aurora and his wife by his side, awaiting for the rising sun to see if he is fully free of the effects from the device. However, the film fades to white and then the credits roll before this can be determined, leaving Gris's fate up to interpretation.Federico Luppi as Jesús Gris
Ron Perlman as Angel de la Guardia
Claudio Brook as Dieter de la Guardia
Tamara Shanath as Aurora Gris
Margarita Isabel as Mercedes
Daniel Giménez Cacho as Tito the Coroner, a character that also appears in the 2010 horror film We Are What We Are.
Mario Iván Martínez as Alchemist
Farnesio de Bernal as Manuelito
Jorge Martínez de Hoyos as Narrator
The film received universal acclaim by critics for its acting, originality, mythology, religious references, and its balance of horror and drama. When the film got the attention of international film critics including those from The United States of America, it has since been recognized as one of the greatest horror films of all-time. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 89% of the critics gave the film positive reviews, with an average rating of 7.3 and the critical consensus being: "Guillermo del Toro's unique feature debut is not only gory and stylish, but also charming and intelligent." It was also entered into the 18th Moscow International Film Festival.
In the early 2010s, Time Out conducted a poll with several authors, directors, actors and critics who have worked within the horror genre to vote for their top horror films. Cronos was placed at number 96 on their top 100 list.
The film has been praised by so many critics and filmmakers, it has become part of The Criterion Collection. The film's Blu-Ray disc includes the film with both the introduction in English, and a version in its original Spanish language. In the website's plot synopsis of the film, it's described as "A dark, visually rich, & emotionally captivating fantasy". The film is sold separately, and as part of a movie collection named, "Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro", which includes del Toro's other Spanish language horror films The Devil's Backbone & Pan's Labyrinth.
In North America, the film was given limited release to only 2 theaters where it grossed $17,538 its opening weekend and grossed a total of $621,392 playing at a total of 28 screens. After many critics viewed the film, they felt it deserved a wider release.
Cronos was first released on DVD by Lionsgate Home Entertainment on 14 October 2003 as a "10th Anniversary Edition", which includes two commentaries, one by del Toro, and the other by three of the four producers, two behind-the-scenes featurettes, two galleries for production photos and concept art, and an easter egg which plays the theatrical trailers of four films, including Cronos. On 7 December 2010, The Criterion Collection released Cronos on both DVD and Blu-ray. The disc contains two audio commentaries by cast and crew, a video tour of del Toro's home office, several interviews, and Geometria, a 1987 short film (although finished in 2010) written and directed by del Toro.