Review: Greatness Lies Within Guillermo del Toro’s “Cabinet of Curiosities”

When it was announced that Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, The Shape of Water) had attached his name to an anthology series called Cabinet of Curiosities, the hopes of lovers of spooky stuff around the world were raised. But could del Toro pull off something that ambitious while constrained to a television format?

Biff Bam Pop!
‘s Sachin Hingoo and Jeffery X Martin opened the creaky wooden doors of del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Here’s what they found.

Lot 46 dir. Guillermo Navarro

JXM: This episode was brimming with fantastic concepts. A story about Nazism and its connections to the occult and arcane rituals centered around a ramshackle indoor storage unit? On paper, sign me up. But I felt the episode took too long to get moving. When that finally happened, the ending was far too abrupt. Tim Blake Nelson is excellent, which is the level of expertise one expects from Nelson. But Lot 46 felt like watching a motorcycle jump in which the daredevil spends half an hour gaining speed but brakes hard right before he goes off the end of the ramp.

SH: As a first impression to this anthology, this wasn’t entirely successful even though it can’t be said that it doesn’t swing for the fences as it overstuffs itself with a ton of ideas. There’s a lot of intriguing threads here that either don’t resolve, or do so unsatisfyingly, like the connection between ancient Nazi rituals and the kind of modern racism that Tim Blake Nelson’s character, emboldened by right-wing talk radio, espouses. But it all feels a little too trite and half-baked for me even though its visuals, like the story itself, tease a sumptuousness that it never quite lives up to. I think that without Nelson absolutely nailing the performance here, this would be rest near the bottom of my list.

Graveyard Rats dir. Vincenzo Natali

JXM: If you like your humor dark and your spaces cramped, then this episode was tailor-made for you. David Hewlett is delightful as a graverobber trying to keep an appearance of being posh. In reality, he relies on stealing from the dead and hocking his findings to pay his mounting debts. His journey from the surface world to the horrors below is riveting, amusing and pretty damned gross. The sound design is outstanding as bones clank together and rats scurry about. Not even 40 minutes long, Graveyard Rats is a piece of horror television worth a return visit.

SH: Natali’s graverobber dark comedy uses it’s almost cruelly-short runtime to do what every great anthology segment does, which is to make the most of as few minutes as possible. David Hewlett is front and centre here, often in close-up in some extremely tight spaces that evoke The Descent and other claustrophobic horrors. His desperation and the push-pull of his tiny victories and massive, catastrophic defeats as he attempts to squash his debts remind me of nothing so much as the squirming tension of Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems. Of all the segments here, this is the one I can most see myself revisiting and throwing on when I want a little bite-sized scare. Not least because there’s an alternate black-and-white version hidden on Netflix that’s supposedly closer to Natali’s vision. Delicious.

The Autopsy dir. David Prior

JXM: This story of the aftermath of a mine explosion is fantastic in nature, but what really pushes this episode over the edge into greatness is David Prior’s direction. Prior, who directed The Empty Man, one of my favorite horror movies of the past ten years, is a master of the slow burn. In this episode, low-key movements and a muted color palette shift about with psychedelic bursts of color and light. The Autopsy feels perfectly balanced, a warped procedural with a final act that is both shocking and sad. It’s not a perfect bit of television, but it is in that range.

SH: When Jeff and I were talking about our favourites of the Cabinet segments, I agonized over whether The Outside or The Autopsy was at the top of my list. Though I think The Outside takes it by a whisper, David Prior’s literal body horror cuts real close. The Autopsy contains one motherfucker of a performance from F. Murray Abraham that might be the single best acting clinic in the whole anthology with a visual style and story structure that reminds me of the best of The Outer Limits. The last act is violent and heartbreaking in all the ways I want from a horror story.

The Outside dir. Ana Lily Amirpour

JXM: Kate Micucci is a treasure. Let there be no mistake. Give that human all the awards it is possible to hand out. The Outside is a strangely poignant episode, Fargo meets The Stepford Wives in a supremely weird, sad mixture. Don’t watch it for logic or jump scares. Watch it for Micucci’s performance as she transforms from unattractive and self-loathing to something… else. NO spoilers, but she doesn’t become a monster in the classic horror sense of the word. Flamboyantly directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, The Outside may be the most human episode of the series.

SH: I’m used to seeing Kate Micucci in quirky comedies, and bringing her charm to this horror story about the beauty industry, self-image, and the crushing pressure of fitting in is an inspired casting choice by director Ana Lily Amirpour. One might say that casting is Amirpour’s mutant power, bringing unlikely actors to roles where you’d never expect them to thrive, like Martin Starr’s heart-wrenchingly doting husband here. Throwing in some top-tier goop, an absurdly enchanting Dan Stevens as an infomercial snake oil salesman, and capping the whole thing off with a shot that, for my money, is every damn bit as good as the parting shot of Mia Goth in Ti West’s Pearl, this is the best thing in a pile of wonderful things in this Cabinet.

By the way, don’t you dare sleep on Emily Carroll’s Some Other Animal’s Meat, the webcomic on which The Outside is based.

Pickman’s Model dir. Keith Thomas

JXM: Crispin Glover’s accent, which seems to be Jimmy Cagney by way of the Bowery Boys, is a bit of a distraction. While this isn’t a strictly faithful adaptation of the Lovecraft tale, there’s enough cosmic madness here to keep most fans of his work happy, That ending is a real kick in the head, too. This is a good one. Not great, mind you, but good.

SH: I’m no Lovecraft purist by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m pretty sure that from my recollection of the story on which Pickman’s Model is based, there’s maybe ten minutes of this segment that has anything to do with Lovecraft’s vision. That being said, I think this episode (Crispin Glover’s very questionable acting decisions aside) expands on the original idea and themes in an interesting way, and has a real gut-punch of an ending. Thomas’s great work on The Vigil has some DNA in this segment, and that saves it somewhat. And, really, as weird as Glover’s Boston-by-way-of-Jersey accent is, he inspired sympathy from me. As I sat with Pickman’s Model, it really grew on me.

Dreams in the Witch House dir. Catherine Hardwicke

JXM: This loose adaptation keeps some of the original story elements while inserting a lot of other stuff. Rupert Grint is great, but the additions do nothing for the story but elongate it. Truth be told, the original is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories. This episode does not do the story justice.

SH: Like Jeff, I love this story and saw a very loose adaptation of it very recently with Jaume Balaguero’s Venus. To say that Hardwicke’s version takes a different tack with it is an understatement, but I personally don’t think this one is for the better. It’s overstuffed in a lot of the ways that Lot 46 is, and doesn’t have Tim Blake Nelson’s performance to bolster it. I don’t know if I’ll be rushing to re-watch Dreams In The Witch House, not least because I know Hardwicke is capable of better. I chalk this one up to being the wrong project for the right director. That said, there’s definitely a horror fan out there that’ll bite on this one. I wish it was me.

The Viewing dir. Panos Cosmatos

JXM: Trippy as all get out. Some unfamiliar with director Cosmatos’s style might find the episode a bit slow at the beginning, but this winds up being a thoughtful story about cosmic horror with some real weird shit at the end. Props to Eric Andre in a dramatic role and Peter Weller for giving some gravitas to the old “rich eccentric” character. I loved it, but can see how it is not for everyone.

SH: If you’ve seen Mandy or Beyond The Black Rainbow, you know what you’re getting from Cosmatos. Cosmic horror with style for days, and a visual motif, sound design, and general synthwave vibes that’ll stick in your head long after the credits roll. In The Viewing, intriguingly, it almost seems like Panos is in on his own joke. There’s a self-awareness here that I find charming, along with the use of personal favourites Peter Weller and Eric Andre.

The Murmuring dir. Jennifer Kent

JXM: Something the horror scene has been missing for a while are good old-fashioned ghost stories. Well, here you go. This tale of married birdwatchers in a haunted house drips with melancholy and longing. Essie Davis is entrancing as the woman who sees ghosts. But it’s Andrew Lincoln as her put-upon and restrained husband that steals this particular show. If you’ve only seen Lincoln hunting down zombies in The Walking Dead, prepare for a revelation. His performance is sweet, sometimes pitiable, and it dominates this episode with understated power. The Murmuring is one of the best hours of television I’ve seen in a long time.   

SH: Heartbreaking as you’d expect a Jennifer Kent production to be, this is also a beautiful and haunting story about mourning (also to be expected from Kent) that happens to centre on two bird scientists (meaning that they study birds, not that they’re birds themselves, though I’m back-pocketing that pitch for Cabinet of Curiosities 2) that are mourning the recent death of their child. Essie Davis and Andrew Lincoln put in a pair of strained but charming performances that breathe life into what could be a rote ghost story. The Murmuring lacks the over-the-top scares or body horror of most of it’s fellow entries, but makes up for it in spades by giving you a story and characters you can’t help but want to embrace.

All told, over the eight episodes of Cabinet of Curiosities, I don’t think there’s an objectively bad one in the bunch. Even the ones that aren’t as strong, like Lot 46 and Dreams in the Witch House, will have their appeal to someone out there, and neither (and none of the segments) are entirely without merit. Like all of my favourite horror anthologies – Creepshow (1982), Trick ‘r’ Treat (2007), and Southbound (2015) – Cabinet covers a wide range of horror with something to appeal to nearly every taste. Like the wonderful Black Mirror, I think a streaming service like Netflix is a perfect place for these bite-sized terrors where you have the option of binging a bunch of them or easily picking out your favourites to savour again and again. Whether you’re a fan of Del Toro’s work or not, it’s pretty clear from both this collection and practically any interview he’s done that he’s a true fan of horror and a student of the game, and has platformed all the right voices here – both in front of and behind the camera.

JXM: Guillermo Del Toro’s movies have a huge fan base but, with the exception of Mimic, they haven’t worked for me. Talk about Del Toro as a writer and as a guy who really knows his horror stuff, and I have nothing but mad respect for the man. His careful curation of Cabinet of Curiosities displays his love for the genre, giving the viewer some of the best horror television in years. There’s a “you gotta see this shit” factor to the show, a rare thing as of late, where you want to share your excitement with friends and family. I watched “The Outside” one afternoon and showed it to my wife that same night. I haven’t done that with a TV series in a long, long time.

SH: It’s rare for an anthology’s segments to maintain the level of quality that Cabinet of Curiosities does. Usually there’s one really great one, something mid, and then a couple of real stinkers. But as soon as I saw the lineup of directors here – both established masters and new blood – I knew something special was on order. I was overjoyed to be right, and I can say with some confidence that I’ll be cracking open this Cabinet again and again.

Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is available on Netflix.

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