Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (2022)

I know I’ve tended toward talking about older media on this site so far, but obviously, I like to keep the format broad enough to cover something new when I think it’s worth discussing. And I can’t think of much of anything more worthy of being discussed than a brand new horror anthology series that’s created and curated by Guillermo del Toro, who I absolutely love, and themed around more classic, Gothic-style horror, with contributions by some of the best genre directors working today.

As with most anthologies, Cabinet of Curiosities is a mixed bag, but honestly, just the fact that it exists, that Netflix allowed del Toro free reign (and a not insubstantial budget, it looks like), makes me so happy, and I earnestly hope we’ll be seeing a second season of this series, just in time for Halloween of 2023.

Though the episodes were dropped in four, two-episode installments in the lead-up to Halloween of 2022, I watched them in fits and starts, whenever I had a spare few hours in the evenings. I still can’t decide the order I would rank them in, as every single episode had something I really liked about it, and though there was a definite thematic thread running throughout, there was enough variety in the subject matter and style of the episodes to ensure that there would be something for pretty much everyone. And while there were also, conversely, some things I didn’t like about aspects of a few of the episodes, every single story was good and absolutely worth watching, at least in my opinion.

“Lot 36”

We open the series with “Lot 36,” based on one of Guillermo del Toro’s own short stories and directed by his frequent collaborator Guillermo Navarro (who was the cinematographer on Pan’s Labyrinth and directed some episodes of Luke Cage and Hannibal). It stars Tim Blake Nelson (who’s been in a million things, but coincidentally also appeared in a movie I just reviewed, the 2006 zombie comedy Fido) as Nick, an angry, racist veteran who has a side hustle buying up abandoned storage units and selling any valuable stuff he finds inside. He actually has a little bit of a scam going with the guy running the place, who alerts him to lots that look particularly promising in exchange for a cut of the loot.

Prior to the events of the story, Nick bought a lot that was owned by a Mexican immigrant woman and was actually sold by mistake, and Nick is a real douche about it, not even allowing her to go in there and retrieve her personal items. This act of assholery absolutely comes back to bite Nick in the ass later on in the story.

His latest purchase, Lot 36, looks like a bunch of crap, but there are a couple of intriguing looking items. One of these is an elaborately carved wooden table, and the other is a set of three rare occult books. Upon consulting with a German appraiser, who identifies the table as having been specifically made for séances, he discovers that there should be a fourth book in the set that’s the rarest one of all. If that fourth book is in the storage unit, the appraiser says, he’ll pay $300,000 just for that.

Well, because the books involve summoning demons, and because the appraiser informs Nick that the guy who owned the storage unit had a sister who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, you just know some diabolical shit is going to pop off, and you also know that Nick, in true Tales from the Crypt fashion, will get some comeuppance for being such a turd.

This was a solid episode to kick off the series; Tim Blake Nelson was great in the lead role, serving as a stellar example of the principle that a character doesn’t have to be remotely likeable to be riveting. The creature design was also fantastic, and though this maybe wasn’t the most surprising story, as once the demonic angle was introduced, you were pretty sure where it was going, it was a satisfying watch.

“The Graveyard Rats”

Henry Kuttner’s 1936 short story “The Graveyard Rats” has been adapted to the screen at least once before (as a segment in the 1996 anthology film Trilogy of Terror II), but this time around, it’s got a bigger budget, a wider scope, a streak of black humor, and the considerable directorial talents of Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice) to recommend it. In the story, we’re following another compelling scoundrel, a grave robber named Masson, who swipes pricey items from the coffins of the dear departed in order to (barely) pay off his substantial gambling debts. Things have been tough lately, though, because Masson’s animal-kingdom nemeses—the rats—have for some reason been absconding with the corpses before Masson can get his own thieving mitts on them.

So when a wealthy local dude drops dead and requests to be buried with a very rare and expensive sword, Masson vows to get down into that coffin before the rats have a chance to pilfer his spoils. And he nearly succeeds, but just as he’s pried open the casket lid, the rats drag the body into their subterranean tunnel system, and a desperate Masson is obliged to follow them underground, in an extended sequence that will absolutely get under the skin of anyone who’s claustrophobic.

Following that, there’s a giant mama rat that threatens our protagonist, and then things go in a decidedly Lovecraftian direction. Though the original short story didn’t end the way this adaptation did, it’s not as out of left field as it might seem, as author Henry Kuttner was a friend of Lovecraft’s and wrote a great many stories utilizing the Cthulhu Mythos, so I thought it was neat for this installment to weave the author’s wider work into the story in order to flesh it out.

This one was also a lot of fun, with some great dark comedy and harrowing scenes inside the tunnels. The special effects were also very good; one of the best things about this series, in fact, was the strength of the creature designs and the gore effects across all the episodes. Another solid entry.

“The Autopsy”

From a cursory sampling of other reviews of the entire series, it appears that “The Autopsy” is an episode that many people chose as their favorite, or among their favorites. It’s easy to see why: it features great acting, particularly a terrific turn by F. Murray Abraham; an intriguing story that sort of has a bit of a period-piece X-Files vibe; and some absolutely revolting and realistic grue and body horror.

Directed by David Prior (who received acclaim for his 2020 film The Empty Man), written for the screen by Blade and The Dark Knight scribe David S. Goyer, and adapted from a short story by Michael Shea, this one starts out as something of a detective story, as terminally ill pathologist Dr. Carl Winters is asked to perform autopsies on several men who were killed in a mining explosion that may have been caused by a fellow miner with some kind of bomb. As the doctor systematically cuts the bodies apart, things get weirder and weirder, until it’s revealed that the sphere that blew up the miners might not have come from Earth.

I really liked the warm, gloomy look of this one; it almost came across like a noir-style film. The gore was incredible, the best in the series, and F. Murray Abraham is always a joy to watch. While I’m not usually as into stories about alien intelligences and parasites, this one really did work, and kept me interested in the mystery throughout.

“The Outside”

One of the most distinctive episodes of the series, I noticed that this was also one of the most divisive, with people ranking it either with the best installments or the worst ones, depending on their preference. This was actually one of my favorites, personally; its look and tone really stood out to me, and I was a big fan of the theming, the weirdness of the concept, the incorporation of black humor, and the pitch-perfect lead performance of Kate Micucci (best known as one half of the hilarious musical comedy duo Garfunkel & Oates).

Adapted from a webcomic called Some Other Animal’s Meat by Emily Carroll and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour (known for 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and 2016’s The Bad Batch), this episode tells the story of Stacey, a somewhat awkward, lonely woman with a passion for taxidermy and a burning desire to fit in with all the shallow, beautiful women at her workplace. She has an affable, laid-back husband who loves her the way she is, but Stacey is just never happy with how she looks, and longs to be part of the pretty, vapid crowd.

She gets invited to a coworker’s Christmas party, and draws snickers when she bestows a taxidermied bird to the host as a gift. The host, though, smooths over the party foul by announcing that she has presents for all of the guests: she’s come into a large quantity of a very expensive skin cream called Alo Glo, which is endorsed by celebrities and is supposed to make you beautiful.

Stacey is enthusiastic about the stuff, hoping it will usher in a brand new identity, but instead it just causes a horrible rash, throwing Stacey into deeper despair. But then, the infomercial spokesman for Alo Glo begins speaking specifically to her through the TV, telling her to order more, because the lotion just needs time to work. Stacey desperately follows this advice, even though it’s literally peeling the skin off her face, and things just get more bizarre from there.

I loved the sort of kooky, disquieting vibe of this one, as well as the Christmas setting. The message of it resonated with me as well, demonstrating the lengths women will go to to be beautiful at any cost, and how the advertising industry preys on those insecurities. Just a great episode all around that went in some unexpected directions.

“Pickman’s Model”

Based on probably my favorite Lovecraft story, this one was directed by Keith Thomas (who directed 2019’s The Vigil and the 2022 Firestarter remake) and starred the always entertaining Crispin Glover as the titular Pickman.

Set in the 1920s (so, contemporary with the original tale), the narrative follows an art student named Will Thurber, who befriends another student called Richard Pickman, whose terrifying paintings depicting demonic scenes and various other grotesqueries are the talk of the local art community.

The two men lose touch over the ensuing years, but reconnect some time later, at which point Will begins to realize that there might be something unholy about the canvases Pickman produces, which cause horrific nightmares, and sometimes insanity, in everyone who views them. It turns out, you see, that Pickman comes from a long line of occultists, and the subjects of his paintings don’t come from his imagination.

This was quite a decent adaptation of the short story (which was also adapted for an episode of Night Gallery back in 1971, incidentally), though it did drag a tad in the middle, and Crispin Glover’s overdone Boston accent was a mite distracting. You can’t accuse the guy of ever phoning shit in, though; he’s never, ever boring to watch. I think the best thing about this episode was the ending, which is nothing like the end of the source story, but went way darker than I was expecting and absolutely chilled my blood.

“Dreams in the Witch House”

Another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation was next on the docket, though in my opinion it wasn’t quite as successful as the former one, and might have benefited from being a bit less busy.

Directed by Twilight helmer Catherine Hardwicke, “Dreams” stars Harry Potter franchise alum Rupert Grint as Walter, a man whose twin sister died in front of him when he was a child. Because he saw her spirit leaving her body all those years ago, he’s spent his entire life into adulthood studying the supernatural, and trying to find a way of communicating with the other side, even working for the Society for Psychical Research (or the equivalent) to investigate mediums and determine if any of them are genuine.

Departing somewhat from the source material, Walter eventually gets turned on to a mind-altering drug called Liquid Gold that seemingly allows him to travel into the land of the dead, where he tracks down his twin sister and learns that he may be able to bring her back into the world of the living with him. Also gunning to return to the vale of the living is an evil witch named Keziah Mason, who lived in the house where Walter is staying. The witch, by the way, also has a familiar, a rat with a human head named Brown Jenkin, which is an element of the original tale for sure, but is here played for laughs for some strange reason, a choice that I thought really lessened the impact of the story.

This episode was a bit overstuffed, in my opinion; the original story was just centered around Walter staying in the cursed room that had once housed the witch, and the weird dreams and experiences he had there, in particular the bizarre geometrical and architectural anomalies he encountered. While I did appreciate the character of Walter being expanded upon with the whole dead-twin-sister backstory, I felt like that element of the story wasn’t integrated all that well with the witch stuff, so the episode felt a little bit fragmented. This one wasn’t my favorite, but I do have to say that the design of Keziah Mason looked absolutely awesome.

“The Viewing”

The penultimate episode of the series, and easily the most singular and offbeat, “The Viewing” was directed by the visual stylist extraordinaire Panos Cosmatos, best known for his acid trips in movie form, Beyond the Black Rainbow and Mandy. If you liked those films, you’ll probably really get into this episode too, but if you didn’t, then I can’t see that there would be much here for you to dig into. You’re either going to be on the guy’s wavelength, or you’re not, and luckily for me, I absolutely am.

The story of this one—and it does have a story, of a sort, though it’s mostly just an excuse to vibe with some trippy images and sounds—revolves around a seemingly random handful of people in 1979 who get invited to the dwelling of a famously reclusive billionaire (played by Peter Weller, no less) to have a look at some undisclosed object.

The four guests don’t appear to have anything in common: one’s an astrophysicist, one’s a once-famous novelist, one’s a musician and songwriter, and one’s a cheesy psychic and mystic. The invitation they receive gives them few details, but they’re all intrigued enough to go along.

Once they arrive at the billionaire’s digs, they spend quite a bit of time just sitting around trying to figure out what’s going on. Their host somehow knows what their exact drink and/or smoke of choice is, and though they try to get answers from a woman already present—Dr. Zahra, played by Sofia Boutella of Climax, Prisoners of the Ghostland, and 2017’s The Mummy—but she remains enigmatic.

Eventually, their host appears, offering them rare whiskey and mind-blowing cocaine to help get everyone into the same groove. He explains that he chose each of them because he felt they would be the only people capable of understanding or appreciating his latest acquisition.

I won’t spoil what that acquisition is, but suffice it to say that many faces will melt off before the evening is out. The effects in the final scenes of this episode are outstanding and delightfully gooey, but keep in mind that the vast majority of this episode is just the characters sitting around getting high and talking about life and philosophy, while the scene is drenched in red light and cool synthwave tunes. I really dug this installment, though; it fit right in with Panos Cosmatos’s unique vision, and the conversations and visuals were entertaining in their own right, even before you got to the monster stuff toward the end. Definitely a stand-out episode, I can see this being another one that people are either going to love or hate.

“The Murmuring”

Since the series opened with an adaptation of a short story by series creator Guillermo del Toro, it’s only fitting that we end with one too. This installment was directed by Jennifer Kent, the woman behind the brilliant film The Babadook, and like that film, this one also focuses on grief and metaphor. It’s perhaps the most low-key of the episodes, and the one that’s most like a traditional ghost story. While some may find it too slow-moving and short on scares, I found it quite emotionally affecting and spooky, though I do agree that it dragged just a hair in places.

The story is set in the 1950s and centers on a married couple of ornithologists. Essie Davis plays Nancy, and Andrew Lincoln (of Walking Dead fame) is her husband Edgar. The pair have been studying murmurations, the strange flocking and swarming behavior of particular species of birds, and they’re doing some field work in what I think is Nova Scotia. When they arrive there, expecting to just camp out in their tents like they usually would, they discover instead that a local couple has set them up in a lovely but kinda eerie old house, complete with all the amenities. Nancy wonders why anyone would live all the way out here, but she’s glad of a warm bed and a stocked pantry.

Nancy and Edgar, it’s revealed, lost their daughter Ava a year prior, and are still having a hard time dealing with it. Slowly, Nancy begins to suspect that they may not be alone in the house, as she starts to hear ghostly voices on their bird recordings, and eventually sees a couple of apparitions as well. Edgar doesn’t see anything and thinks that the “ghosts” are nothing but a product of Nancy’s unresolved emotions about her daughter’s death, and this disbelief leads to Nancy pulling farther away from her husband, making the already large gulf between them yawn ever wider.

This one is very much a slow burn in the vein of The Babadook, although it doesn’t feature as unsettling a manifestation of the grief as that movie did. Some may find “The Murmuring” too ponderous, and far more drama than horror, and those are fair accusations, but I still really liked this one; the acting performances were among the best in the whole series, and I found myself very emotionally invested in the breakdown of the couple’s relationship. Yet another episode that I feel will fall on either extreme of most people’s rankings.

While Cabinet of Curiosities varied slightly in quality from episode to episode, this was a surprisingly strong season, with eight eminently watchable stories from some of horror’s leading lights, and an obvious affection for the genre, particularly in its more gothic guises. I’m hoping that all the positive buzz will result in more seasons of this being made, because I can see myself watching hours and hours more of this kind of thing without ever getting tired of it. Long live Guillermo del Toro.

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