Jthere are few safer bets than being a Guillermo del Toro fan. Whether he’s bringing a wooden puppet to life, making Sally Hawkins fall in love with a fish, or defending Martin Scorsese online, he’s a seemingly endless source of fun. As Halloween approaches, he continues to bear fruit with his Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix), a series in eight episodes as elegant as it is grotesque. While it’s assumed that in any anthology series there will be hits and misses, nothing in this cabinet is worth throwing away.
Del Toro wrote two of the episodes but “organized” them all and brought together eight directors to create standalone nightmares. He appears at the start of each, much like Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone. But Del Toro cuts a more sinister figure, with a firmly unsmiling expression as he ominously presents each episode as if it were a cursed object. The literal cabinet appears alongside it, an ornate wooden structure that resembles a multi-level mansion; its contents, we are told, range from keys to bones to unicorn horns. Meanwhile, Del Toro’s cabinet is also packed with some of horror’s most exciting voices, including The Babadook’s Jennifer Kent, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s Ana Lily Amirpour, and The Empty Man’s David Prior. But each keeps its offering rooted in Guillermo’s signature style of the twisted fairy tale, filled with heartbreaking effects and morbid morality. It’s a cabinet in which hubris takes you to hell and cruelty comes back tenfold.
The series begins with Lot 36, directed by longtime Del Toro collaborator Guillermo Navarro, who won an Oscar as director of photography for the director’s best picture, Pan’s Labyrinth. There are similar threads of fascism and fantasy in Lot 36, in which Tim Blake Nelson plays a military veteran slowly swallowed by “alt-right” talking points. He spends his days being sued by debt collectors and reselling the contents of abandoned warehouses. Blake Nelson is phenomenal, playing up all the bitterness and selfishness of his fascist brainwashing but retaining enough of the little cracks of humanity to remain compelling even when he inevitably stumbles upon a storage unit with truly horrible contents.
The series then dives into its most tense tale, Graveyard Rats, by Vincenzo Natali who was the source of the Kafkaesque nightmare classic Cube. Adapted from the short story by Henry Kuttner, the principle is simple: a grave robber digs up a rich corpse, only to see it dragged by a pack of rats. Undeterred, he chases the vermin through dark, twisting tunnels and discovers something far worse there. The journey through the tunnels is quite unpleasant and breathtakingly stressful. Equally gruesome moments and macabre body horror populate the inky black story of The Autopsy, where Prior, as a doctor in the coroner’s office, encounters a corpse that needs more than a “cause of death.” “.
Meanwhile, HP Lovecraft’s Pickman model is in the hands of The Vigil director Keith Thomas, who embraces the fantastical potential of Del Toro and the cosmic terror of Lovecraft with a cast led by the ever-intriguing Crispin Glover. But most fantastic of all is The Viewing from Panos Cosmatos, director of the avant-garde revenge film Nicolas Cage Mandy. This drug-trip fable gone wrong turns into a demonic figure who feels torn from Del Toro’s coterie.
Throughout the series, the tone changes, but he always keeps one foot in Del Toro’s filmography; the dark humor of the Hellboy films is present in makeover nightmare The Outside, where Stacey (a brilliantly goofy Kate Micucci) plays an amateur taxidermist eager to fit in with her glamorous colleagues at the bank. Despite her husband’s (Martin Starr) protests, she can’t resist the lure of Alo Glo, sold on television by a delightfully camped Dan Stevens. It’s a classic “be careful what you wish for” tale done with all the panache you’d expect from Del Toro and director Amirpour.
Perhaps the most significant departure from the pack is the least scary but most haunting entry. The Murmuring sees Kent reunite with its star Essie Davis for a mournful tale of a pair of birdwatchers retreating to a remote home to research bird migrations and recover from a terrible loss. The play has all the sweet sadness of Kent’s work and the horror tragedy of Del Toro’s orphanage, The Devil’s Backbone. It also sums up perfectly what makes the Cabinet of Curiosities an absolute triumph. It allows filmmakers to draw inspiration from the master without crushing their own spirit, giving Del Toro plenty of deliciously unpleasant stories to present to the viewer. There doesn’t seem to be a better way to count down to Halloween than with this assurance that the state of horror is in good, albeit grim, hands.