Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is a 2022 horror anthology series that was released on Netflix during the week leading up to Halloween. Certainly appropriate timing, but I never managed to fit it into last year’s marathon. I figured I’d just save it for this year, and have been working my way through the 8 episodes since the start of the 6 Weeks of Halloween. As with all Anthologies, it is a bit uneven, but I’d say it coheres better than, say, Masters of Horror (which this series, with its focus on auteurs, bears some resemblance to). There are a couple of rough entries here, but MoH had some real stinkers. Each episode starts with Guillermo del Toro providing an introduction whilst manipulating a literal Cabinet of Curiosities, which was a nice touch and provides a little structure and consistency to the series (that’s been lacking in a lot of other anthology series since Tales from the Crypt). Certainly worth a look if you’re into this sort of thing.
The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 3.5 – Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities
S1:E1 “Lot 36” – A crotchety army vet buys old storage units hoping to sell off their contents to settle debts that he owes to some unsavory folk. His latest purchase shows some mysterious potential, and once he consults a spooky antiques appraiser about a strange spiritualist object, things take a more dangerous turn. Rock solid, straight down the middle anthology stuff here, reminiscent of a Tales from the Crypt episode (or any of the anthologies that take inspiration from the old EC comics run) where a bad man gets in over his head and earns an ironic comeuppance, with a hint of Lovecraftian terror for good measure. Tim Blake Nelson plays the army vet with his usual flare, and Sebastian Roché oozes sinister tension (but Nelson isn’t very observant). Director Guillermo Navarro is mostly known as a cinematographer, but he’s clearly learned some things from del Toro, as this episode comports itself rather well. It’s not the most original or groundbreaking episode, and it’s all stuff you’ve seen before, but as an intro to an anthology, it works well. **1/2
S1:E2 “Graveyard Rats” – A grave robber must contend with a mysterious labyrinth populated with ravenous rats in his latest attempt to secure treasures. Sort of a Victorian-era reflection of Lot 36, actually, these make a good pairing. This one is directed by Vincenzo Natali (probably still most famous for Cube), a director I’m always excited to see, and this episode is a pretty good indication of why. He’s got a good eye for visuals, and he knows how to keep the pace snappy, even for a relatively straightforward story like this one.
It helps that David Hewlett is giving the lead performance (also a frequent Natali collaborator), as he can carry the rather simple narrative by himself. Along the way we’re treated to more spooky Lovecraftian horrors and, naturally, rodents of unusual size. Certainly in the running for my favorite of the episodes. ***
S1:E3 “The Autopsy” – A seasoned medical examiner is called in to examine a mysterious body discovered in the woods. As he pieces the story together, he begins to suspect something more sinister at play. Director David Prior’s The Empty Man was dumped during the pandemic (also in part due to the Disney/Fox merger), and I was worried that he wouldn’t get more opportunities because that movie shows a lot of promise. Fortunately, this episode marks another success on his ledger.
Led by F. Murray Abraham’s performance as the medical examiner, this episode is reminiscent of The Autopsy of Jane Doe, only this has more of a narrative drive and an actual ending. Another favorite of this series, and I go back and forth between this one and Graveyard Rats as my favorite episode from Cabinet of Curiosities. ***
S1:E4 “The Outside” – A mousey bank teller wants to fit in at work, so she starts using a beauty regimen that seems to cause an allergic reaction, but which is actually auguring a disquieting transformation. Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, this one is filled with psychological subtext (er, perhaps just straight text, actually) on beauty and the desire to fit in. Kate Micucci is perfectly cast as the awkward protagonist, and Martin Starr puts in a great supporting turn as her (rightly!) concerned husband. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get on its wavelength. It feels weird to say that the 64 minute runtime felt too long, but after the first three episodes, this felt a bit more repetitive and sloggy. The mild body horror was reasonably well done, but never really took hold, and I felt like I knew where it was headed the whole time. Ultimately, I find this to be more of an interesting failure that’s still well made and worthy of respect, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. **
S1:E5 “Pickman’s Model” – An art student meets an older artist whose art has an uncanny quality that he can’t shake. Based on one of my favorite Lovecraft short stories, rife with his usual baroque style and a nice stinger of a twist ending, this adaptation was a true disappointment. In fairness, there’s not a lot of meat on the bone of the original story (it’s a short one, after all), but in their attempt to flesh things out, they’ve well and truly removed any mystery or surprise at what is actually going on here. Ben Barnes is a little flat as the art student, but does fine, and Crispin Glover is his usual wacky self, but none of it really fits (and I don’t even know what they were thinking when it came to whatever those accents were supposed to be). There’s an element of goofy so-bad-its-good energy that Glover brings, but it’s at odds with the rest of the story. *
S1:E6 “Dreams in the Witch House” – Determined to rescue his dead twin from the afterlife, a man discovers a drug that seemingly allows him to travel to the other side. The only problem? An infamous witch sees an opportunity to trick him into freeing her. Another adaptation of a Lovecraft story, and… another disappointment. This one stings a bit because Stuart Gordon already did an adaptation for Masters of Horror a while back, and that was one of the better episodes of that series (I would recommend seeking that one out, rather than watching this one). Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (of Twilight fame), this has the annoying tendency to rely heavily on blunt exposition that explains the most obvious parts of what’s going on, while simultaneously leaving the weirdest stuff unaddressed in any way (there’s a rat with a man’s face? Sure, why not, no need to figure that one out). There’s the bones of a good story here. Going to rescue someone from the afterlife only to attract the attention of a notorious witch? A good premise! The witch design is actually quite nice! But man, they really fumble this one. It doesn’t even look very good, and is the episode most festooned by the flat, overly dark cinematography that has sadly become more common over the past few years. I’m not super familiar with the original story, but I get the impression that this takes some major liberties. Probably my least favorite episode from Cabinet of Curiosities? Combined with the previous episode, this represents a brutal one-two punch (the original release strategy was two episodes a day for the week leading up to Halloween, so these two Lovecraft adaptations were meant to be a double feature, yikes). *
S1:E7 “The Viewing” – A wealthy recluse invites four accomplished guests to his estate for a mysterious viewing. Of what? No one knows, but I think you can guess that said viewing does not go as expected. Another anticipated entry from an interesting director, it’s fascinating how idiosyncratic Panos Cosmatos’ style seems after having watched six episodes of more conventional approaches that mostly take inspiration from Lovecraft, Poe, or Victorian spooks. The relatively short runtime reigns in some of Cosmatos’ more extreme slow-burn tendencies, making this probably his most accessible work yet. Of course, he still takes his time getting to the real horror, which doesn’t really start until the third act hits. That said, he crafts a good hang out atmosphere of the first two thirds of the episode, replete with catchy visuals and his usual synth-pop soundtrack. The cast helps here too, with Peter Weller nailing the uncanny rich dude vibe, accompanied by a solid ensemble consisting of Charlyne Yi, Eric Andre, Sofia Boutella, Steve Agee, and more. Once things start to get weird and, um, gloopy, I was fully onboard. Great creature effects here. Even if the ending is a bit too open ended for my tastes, I still found it to be one of the better entries in the Cabinet of Curiosities, and well worth checking out. ***
S1:E8 “The Murmuring” – Married ornithologists move into an eerie house with a tragic history that reminds them of their own grief. Jennifer Kent’s long anticipated return to the horror genre (after 2014’s The Babadook), I have to admit that this is another one that didn’t really connect with me at all. A big part of this is that it leans heavily into the grief/trauma themes that have been dominant in the horror genre since, well, around the time that The Babadook came out. This is the sort of episode that fans of “elevated horror” might love, since there’s very little actual horror here. It’s much more concerned with the drama and grief of a couple who has lost a child. As these things go, it’s well done, but I when I see something like this, I can’t shake the notion that the filmmaker really just wanted to make an intense drama about losing a child, but couldn’t get any funding for it unless they included some horror elements. I dunno, this is another interesting failure that is well made and worthy of respect, but I bounced off of it (though I will note that I appreciated the ending, which was somewhat unexpected). **
So by my count, I’ve got three really great episodes, one solid entry, two interesting failures that are nonetheless thought provoking and well made, and two mild stinkers. As these things go, not a terrible batting average, and I really appreciated most of the talent they went after for the series (on both sides of the camera). Would definitely like to see another season of Cabinet of Curiosities!