Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (2022)
Open your mind to fear.
Who better to host an anthology horror series than Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro? The Mexican fantasist has a deep love of the genre in all its variations, but his fannish love is coupled with a serious academic bent; simply put, Guillermo del Toro knows his shit. He’s well versed in the Gothic, the Baroque, and especially the Symbolist, but he’s no gatekeeper — he wants to invite you in, not shut you out. Which means his new Netflix series, Cabinet of Curiosities, is the perfect match of author and subject.
Guillermo del Toro has brought together eight brilliant directors and pretty much let them have free rein, providing a couple of source short stories (Lot 36 and The Murmuring, co-scripting the former with Regina Corrado) and the support and protection of having a big dog like him running the show. But the result is a bit of a mixed bag. That’s common with anthology series, a form of which I’m a fan; part of the appeal is knowing if the current episode sucks, the next one is a fresh draw.
None of Cabinet of Curiosities’ episodes suck; they’re just mostly a bit mid with the occasional bright spot. But it’s perhaps a little more disappointing because this is a big ol’ prestige Netflix series with a lot of fantastic talent on both sides of the camera, drawing on some great source material, and the final result should be more than “pretty decent.” What might have passed muster in the early 2000s when we seemed to have a glut of genre anthology shows (I have a soft spot for 2001’s little-seen Night Visions, which was hosted by Henry Rollins) does not necessarily make the grade now.
But look, each episode deserves a fair shake. So, let’s go through them one by one.
Directed by Guillermo Navarro — usually a cinematographer; From Dusk til Dawn (1996), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) — Lot 36 gives us a nasty, racist redneck, Nick Appleton (Tim Blake Nelson), who makes a living buying abandoned storage lockers at auction and selling the contents. Coming across a stash of occult books and materials, he’s tasked with finding a missing grimoire to complete the set and soon suffers an ironic, not to mention demonic, fate. Pretty standard sting-in-the-tail morality tale, with a touch of Clive Barker-style urban occult horror.
Vincenzo Natali, Splice (2009), directs and adapts this Henry Kuttner short story that follows a desperate graverobber, Masson (David Hewlett), who’s low on funds due to rats seemingly always getting to his targets before he does and carrying them off. Seeing his latest prize dragged down a hole by an enormous rat, he gives chase — unwisely, as it turns out. Gory, Victorian-tinted “down the rabbit hole” — or should that be “Down the rat warren” — grand Guignol exercise that delights in atmosphere and the gross-out.
Perhaps my biggest disappointment here. Not because it’s bad, but because the short story by Michael Shea that it’s based on is one of the best horror stories I’ve ever read, a perfect commingling of psychological, cosmic, and body horror. Director David Prior, The Empty Man (2020), and screenwriter David S. Goyer, Dark City (1998), get the plot more or less right but lose almost all the source’s creeping dread. Summoned to autopsy a number of miners who died in an underground explosion, a terminally ill medical examiner, Dr. Carl Winters (F. Murray Abraham), discovers … well, something. It’d be a shame to spoil this one. But do yourself a favor and track down the original first.
I tend to bounce off Ana Lily Amirpour’s stuff, as a general rule, but the dark humor and social satire of this episode, adapted by Haley Z. Boston from Emily Carroll’s webcomic, Some Other Animal’s Meat, tickled me. Kate Micucci’s amateur taxidermist longs for social acceptance at the bank where she works, and succumbs to the lure of Alo Glo, a cosmetic pimped on TV by Dan Stevens, thinking it’ll give her confidence. If that reminds you a little of Ellen Burstyn’s arc in Requiem for a Dream (2000), you’re not far wrong, as our heroine discovers the horrors lurking behind the wellness and beauty industry.
Loosely adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name by Lee Patterson and directed by Keith Thomas — the pretty good The Vigil (2019) and the pretty dire Firestarter (2022) — this one kind of drops the ball by trying to widen the scope of the source, not trusting us to plug into what ol’ Howard was putting down. Ben Barnes plays an art student drawn to the work of his creepy colleague, Richard Pickman (Crispin Glover), but discovers to his horror, that his friend draws not from imagination but from real life. Extra points for audacity and ambition, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing, trading creeping unease for in-your-face gore.
DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE
Another Lovecraft adaptation, this time by Mika Watkins and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, Twilight (2008), and a complete mess. Lovecraft’s protagonist Walter Gilman, played by Rupert Grint, is here given a personal stake in the action, taking a room once occupied by a witch (Keziah Mason) in a muddled attempt to rescue his twin sister (Daphne Hoskins) from hell — sort of. Narratively, this one lurches all over the place, even for an adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s less tightly-wound stories. We do get DJ Qualls as a kind of rat creature, though, but it makes a hash of the material in preference to some rather mawkish observations on grief and sacrifice.
Directed by Panos Cosmatos, Mandy (2018), who co-writes with Aaron Stewart-Ahn, this lurid, tripped-out slice of sleazy LA horror gives us Peter Weller as a reclusive mogul, Lionel Lassiter, who invites a mixed bag of thinkers (Eric André, Charlyne Yi, Steve Agee, Michael Therriault) up to his mansion to take experimental drugs and check out a meteor in his collection. And things get weirder from there. Cosmatos has a unique voice in cinema, and it’s a good match for this material: LA horror somewhere in the vicinity of Mulholland Drive (2001) and Brand New Cherry Flavor (2021). Real horror is perhaps having a bad trip in the company of insufferable people, and that’s what this ep feels like — in a good way. Sofia Boutella shows up to be suitably decorative and icy as Weller’s personal physician. Great synth score by Daniel Lopatin, too.
An ornithologist couple decamp to the woods to study bird migrations and to contemplate the terrible loss that is tearing their marriage apart. An atmospheric meditation on grief shot in austere widescreen by director Jennifer Kent, who reunites with her The Babadook (2014) star Essie Davis, with Andrew Lincoln also in the mix. Haunting and heartsick, this might be the best of the bunch.
So, that’s your lot. I like the concept of Cabinet of Curiosities, and I particularly like how Del Toro makes a point to name and praise the director of each episode in his introductions. But I can’t help feeling that the average quality across the board should be a notch or two higher. Pretty good is good enough, but with this pedigree, we should be getting something consistently great.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson