Guillermo Del Toro has certainly evolved as a directorsince Cronos, his 1993 film debut, but the seeds of his dark vision werealready pushing twisted vegetation to the screen’s surface. Here is a directorwho positively revels in ooze, rotting flesh, icky insects, and in-your-faceviolence complete with a requisite amount of blood, not to mention a taste fordisturbing religious imagery, psychosexual unpleasantness and baroque plotsthat could only be culled from the worst of nightmare narratives.

Yet what makes Del Toro a cherished auteur rather than acheap thrills horror schlockmeister ishis uniquely arresting visual imagination and uncanny ability to tap into bothuncharted landscapes of childhood wonder and dread, and adult existentialterror. Laced with black humor and a touch of camp, Cronos, a creepily poetictake on the quest for immortality, demonstrates Del Toro’s consistentobsessions; it’s fun to cross-reference images and devices from this breakoutfilm with his 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth(note the innocent child caught in a malevolent adult world, as well as DelToro’s strange obsession with applying needle and thread to the face, and—what do you know—the presence of those nasty bugs).

While no Citizen Kane-like burst from thegate, Cronos still displays more than enough visual inventiveness and sheercinematic vigor to have us once again mourn Del Toro’s recent decision to stepaway from the upcoming production of The Hobbit. His gloriously twistedvisions would no doubt have stirred those cute little fellas up a bit.