- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
It feels like it took an unnaturally long time for Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities to exist. That’s partially on a literal level, because Netflix first ordered an anthology series from the Pan’s Labyrinth director back in May 2018, but it’s much more big-picture: In this ever-expanding TV universe, a horror anthology curated by an A-list director in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock Presents has obvious value and if you were going to find a 21st century equivalent for Hitch’s screen persona — aloof-yet-affable, authoritative-yet-inviting — del Toro is the first and only person to whom you’d go.
Del Toro is an Oscar-winning filmmaker, a bestselling author and a collector of both horror memorabilia and horror properties for big and small screen development. The latter at least partially explains the long gap between pick-up and release for what is now an eight-episode anthology featuring some of the biggest names in modern horror and rolling out on Netflix over four pre-Halloween days. Note, incidentally, that Cabinet of Curiosities leads with an odd bait-and-switch. The first two episodes — Guillermo Navarro’s “Lot 36” and Vincenzo Natali’s “Graveyard Rats” — are both under 45 minutes; the rest all hover around an hour and, in most cases, probably could have been trimmed.
Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities
While del Toro directed none of the films, only co-wrote one and provided the original stories for a couple of others, his thematic interests and pieces of his familiar aesthetic are evident throughout (and somewhat explained in his oddly wooden episodic introductions). Cabinet of Curiosities is fairly typical in its anthological unevenness, with two or three clear winners, one or two total duds and a few patchy, well, curiosities. As a bonus, it’s doubtful that any pair of viewers will have the identical heirarchy.
It immediately stands out that Cabinet of Curiosities is more backwards-looking horror than something like Showtime’s semi-recent Masters of Horror anthology, in which many or most of the installments were designed as gory allegories — contemporary alle-gories, I suppose. With Cabinet of Curiosities, even the episodes that have modern themes — “Lot 36” with its focus on white male anger and Ana Lily Amirpour’s beauty industry satire “The Outside” come to mind — are set at least 20 years in the past.
Part of this is just what comes from using H.P. Lovecraft as a dominant source of inspiration. There are direct adaptations of Lovecraft stories “Pickman’s Model” (directed by Keith Thomas) and “Dreams in the Witch House” (from Catherine Hardwicke) and several of the originals are delving directly into corners of the Cthulu Mythos.
That means lots of creatures with tentacles, nebulous talk of other worlds and a generally cynical view of humanity’s place in a vicious and uncaring universe, mind you, not the more racially prickly — or, you know, racist-as-hell — Lovecraftian undercurrents. It happens that del Toro is a passionate Lovecraft devotee and I prefer his somewhat less Lovecraftian horror — I’ve always felt the same way about Stephen King. But that’s just a fair warning that some of the chapters here are focused on death in a deep and introspective way and others are just focused on death as an incubator for dimensional demons. To each their own!
My favorite Cabinet of Curiosities installment was surely the least scary and the least blatantly gross of this first batch. The Babadook director Jennifer Kent has delivered another dark and disturbing reflection on grief and motherhood with “The Murmuring,” which focuses on a pair of naturalists (played by Babadook star Essie Davis and Andrew Lincoln), whose research into birds has functioned as a way of avoiding a tragedy from their past. When the couple takes up residence at a spooky and remote house, her sensitivity to the house’s haunted past forces an emotional confrontation.
The moody episode is anchored by a powerhouse performance from Davis and a quieter, but complementary performance by Lincoln. Netflix has slated “The Murmuring” to premiere last, which makes sense because while some viewers might find it resonant and devastating, gorehounds will probably be frustrated.
Then again, my second favorite episode, Amirpour’s “The Outside,” goes to the other extreme. It’s full of oozing goo, abrupt violence and wild swings of humor, all held together by Kate Micucci as an ugly duckling bank teller — she even hunts and stuffs a duck at one point — swayed by a late-night infomercial pitchman (Dan Stevens) to over-indulge in a line of beauty creams, much to the chagrin of her loving husband (Martin Starr). The blend of whimsy and genre-bending audacity won’t surprise anybody who has followed Amirpour’s career, nor will Micucci’s fans be shocked that she’s able to alternate between broad comedy and grounded sadness so fluidly, which is a pun because there’s a lot of goo in this house.
No slouch in the goo department, Panos Cosmatos’ “The Viewing” is another comedy-infused entry in which strangers (including Eric Andre, Steve Agee and Charlyne Yi) are lured to the house of an eccentric mogul (Peter Weller) to see something very unusual, but spend most of their time discussing the place’s unique acoustical features. It’s an Argento-inspired slow-build of filter-heavy, grimy cinematography and synth-driven soundtrack that is either a drug-fueled nightmare or just a nightmare, working on a visceral level more than anything narrative.
Points also to Natali’s “Graveyard Rats,” which absolutely and totally delivers on the promise of its title.
Going back again to my general Lovecraft ambivalence, the two direct adaptations were probably my least favorites. “Pickman’s Model” is overlong and over-obvious — in the author’s “Art of madness drives people mad” sub-genre — but at least it features Crispin Glover doing weirdass Crispin Glover things, in this case an accent that has to be heard to be believed. “Dreams in the Witch House” doesn’t even have that going for it and this story of a man (Rupert Grint, not bad at all) trying to reconnect with his long-deceased sister, is the only episode that actually looks cheap.
Generally, the production design from Tamara Deverell is varied and exceptional, from the metaphorically rotting and corroded storage facility of “Lot 36” to the myriad distinctive haunted houses; the episodes are generally well-shot and designed for watching in the dark, with a big bowl of popcorn to throw in the air at the scariest parts. Here’s hoping del Toro and Netflix don’t take four years to deliver the next batch of episodes — and maybe that the focus is a hair less Lovecraftian next time around.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day