There is an art to telling a scary story. Finding new ways to get under people’s skin and make them think today is tricky. When presented with an anthology of stories with a unifying theme, maintaining the throughline while also imbuing the story with your own signature stamp is trickier. Yet, it can be done. We’ve seen it in books like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and shows like “Creepshow” and “The Twilight Zone.” It is the latter that some may think of when confronted with Guillermo del Toro’s CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, with del Toro acting as the curator of tales in this horror anthology.
Dropping on Netflix in two-part segments from October 25-28, each segment focuses on a theme for each director and writer to explore. Ranging from greed to grief, death to life, and more, each segment has its moments to shine. Blurring the lines between reality and the supernatural, there is a significant Lovecraftian influence on these tales. Heck, some of them are based on Lovecraft’s own work. These stories are the base that del Toro and company build to give their own spin.
For those viewers seeking outright scares, Guillermo del Toro’s CABINET OF CURIOSITIES may not be for you. These are the stories you’d tell around a fire while waiting out a storm ala Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. Morality tales delivered in subtle spooky fashion; this is what I imagine a Halloween night of tale-telling involving.
Lot 36 and Graveyard Rats
Each episode leads with an introduction from Guillermo del Toro before launching us into a new tale. His narration is soothing and evokes those “Twilight Zone” memories of yore. With Netflix dropping two episodes a day, each pairing encapsulates and builds upon its assigned theme.
“Lot 36” and “Graveyard Rats” are first up, and both tackle the theme of greed excellently. Both stories serve as warnings that we should all heed the dangers of letting greed consume us. Directed by Guillermo Navarro and written by Regina Corrado, based on an original story by del Toro, “Lot 36” focuses on a man who purchases storage units to flip the contents inside. Tim Blake Nelson’s Nick Appleton is positively awful. To explain further would ruin the surprise.
“Graveyard Rats” is a nightmare for those with rodent phobias. Written and directed by Vincenzo Natali, and based on the short story by Henry Kuttner, we are introduced to a caretaker of a graveyard who is drowning in debt. Contrasted against “Lot 36,” though, the character is more morally grey. David Hewlett’s Masson is a bit tragic. Hewlett infuses the character with a sorry likability that will tug at the heartstrings. But greed always comes at a price, and both “Lot 36” and “Graveyard Rats” highlight this well.
The Autopsy and The Outside
CABINET OF CURIOSITIES starts with the theme of greed. Episodes 3 and 4 focus on the body and everything that entails. While it is difficult to play favorites, this segment of the anthology is incredibly strong. “The Autopsy” might be the standout for many viewers. Written and directed by David Prior, based on a short story by Michael Shea, it’s difficult not to be drawn into F. Murray Abraham’s performance. You can’t look away. Of all the performances delivered in this anthology, Abraham’s performance may be my favorite.
“The Outside” is one of two more colorful episodes in CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, and it provides a welcome visual contrast. Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour and written by Haley Z. Boston, based on a short story by Emily Carroll, the story is a journey focusing on self-acceptance. This is an idea that many might find relatable, but things do get dark. A surprise in “The Outside” was Dan Stevens, who gets up to all sorts of shenanigans here.
Pickman’s Model and Dreams in the Witch House
We then move onto supernatural fare with “Pickman’s Model” and “Dreams in the Witch House.” Both are adaptations of Lovecraft stories, so there is a certain expectation built in for strangeness to occur. “Pickman’s Model” starts things off on a bleak note. Directed by Keith Thomas and written by Lee Patterson, this is a story that deals with the balance between hope and nihilism. Ben Barnes does well here, though the expansion of the story reminds of Dorian Gray. This is likely Crispin Glover is well-cast, but not sure if the role itself is a stretch for his talents.
“Dream in the Witch House” is arguably the most beautiful episode of Guillermo del Toro’s CABINET OF CURIOSITIES. It’s directed by Catherine Hardwicke who has always known how to deliver visuals. The screenplay is written by Mike Watkins. With all that said, it might be the weakest due to the story itself and overall execution. That said, Rupert Grint delivers grief and drug-addled sensibilities well here in his performance. Desperately wanting to see his deceased sister again, you can feel his sadness offscreen, and this serves as the glue that will keep viewers invested.
The Viewing and The Murmuring
Wrapping up the first season of Guillermo del Toro’s CABINET OF CURIOSITIES are the episodes “The Viewing” and “The Murmuring.” Both episodes feel directly within their respective directors’ wheelhouses. If you’ve followed their work, the episodes will feel both familiar and surprising.
“The Viewing” is directed by Panos Cosmatos, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Stewart-Ahn. It is based on a story by Michael Shea. “The Viewing” is markedly different compared to previous episodes in both visuals and execution. Rather than focusing on an individual, Cosmatos expands to tackle a group of characters instead. Yes, they will experience an awakening, but Cosmatos’ approach allows for some mind-bending, trippy excitement along the way. In a way, “The Viewing” aligns with Cosmatos’ general filmmaking vibe.
Speaking of vibes, “The Murmuring” and its focus on grief aligns well with director Jennifer Kent’s previous work. Essie Davis rejoins Kent on this project, which further reminds us of just how well the two work together. “The Murmuring” is directed and written by Kent, based on a short story by del Toro. It’s difficult to say much else, but the process of grieving always reveals the ghosts that live in and outside our minds.
The craft and final words on CABINET OF CURIOSITIES
Like all of Guillermo del Toro’s projects, the below-the-line artisans must be discussed. With most of the episodes having a similar visual vibe, it makes sense that the level of cohesion is because of returning Del Toro’s faves. Of note, Tamara Deverell (Nightmare Alley) returns to tackle the production design. Once again, she does an incredible job of hitting the visual designs necessary for the time periods and places viewers are taken to with each episode.
Luís Sequeira returns once more in costume design. If you’re familiar with their work, you’ll know Sequeira never fails to deliver, especially once we get into more overt period pieces. Even Cosmatos’ wild child of an episode delivers impeccable design work, and it’s the below-the-line crew we need to thank.
As a horror anthology, Guillermo del Toro’s CABINET OF CURIOSITIES is well-done. It may not deliver jump scare levels of horror and the stories themselves will feel familiar. That said, these are the stories that we’d use to teach important lessons to children at night pre-cinema. Like fairytales and folklore, these stories carry themes teaching us about greed, life, death, balance, and more. The horror is the path that the message must take for proper delivery.
Starting October 25, two episodes will be released each night on Netflix. All eight episodes of Guillermo del Toro’s CABINET OF CURIOSITIES will be available October 28th. Just in time for Halloween weekend.
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