It’s been too long since a show like “Masters of Horror” allowed twisted auteurs a platform to explore the themes and images that haunt them. Enter Guillermo del Toro, the Oscar-winning director who has gifted his fans with Netflix’s “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities,” even writing two episodes and introducing each of them like a modern Rod Serling. This is a horror fan’s dream, a series of what are basically new short films from the directors of “Mandy,” “The Babadook,” “The Empty Man,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” and more. Like any anthology series, it’s a mixed bag in terms of quality, but the batting average is remarkably high and there are at least two undeniable standouts, episodes that should get genre nuts talking around the world. It’s also refreshing to see horror storytelling that’s not as reliant on twists as something like “Black Mirror,” more interested in slowly delivering increasing amounts of nightmare fuel than playing gotcha games. One only hopes it becomes an annual tradition.
The fun starts with “Lot 36,” based on a short story by del Toro and directed by his buddy Guillermo Navarro, the Oscar-winning cinematographer behind “Pan’s Labyrinth” and a notable TV director in his own right. Tim Blake Nelson stars as a desperate treasure hunter, a man who buys storage units in search of something valuable. As his greed and panic start to overtake him, he underestimates the warnings from supernatural experts about a séance table and some books he found in a unit. If there’s a theme in “Cabinet of Curiosities,” it’s the danger of desperate greed as several of these tales are about people who crossed a line from which there was no coming back. In terms of quality, “Lot 36” is a mid-level chapter in that it kind of feels like it’s missing another act but Nelson is typically solid and it’s a good tone-setter for the entire project.
Its partner on the first night cements that theme of desperate greed in the better “Graveyard Rats,” directed by Vincenzo Natali (“Splice”), who reunites with his “Cube” star David Hewlett in an increasingly grisly chapter about a grave robber who finds himself six feet under. Hewlett plays a man who pillages gold teeth from the recently deceased but finds the bodies are being stolen by literal rats before he can get the goods. When he chases a body down a rat hole, he finds, well, it’s unimaginable. Some of it is a little goofy but the practical effects and Natali’s grip on tone make it memorable.
If there’s a weak night, it’s the second with chapters by Ana Lily Amirpour (“The Bad Batch”) and David Prior (“The Empty Man”). Amirpour’s “The Outside” has an excellent cast in Kate Micucci, Martin Starr, and Dan Stevens, but it’s about 30 minutes of ideas in a 60-minute package. Micucci plays an awkward soul who gets bullied at work for her looks and mannerisms. When she discovers a beauty cream that could change her life (hysterically hawked by Stevens), well, bad things are inevitable. There’s a tonal inconsistency and blunt messaging to “The Outside” that makes it a little clunky, but its stars are all in.
It’s admittedly better than “The Autopsy,” the weakest chapter of the show. F. Murray Abraham stars as a coroner brought in to perform an autopsy after a bizarre mine explosion that appears to have an alien origin. Things get very weird but never in an interesting way, although Prior’s eye stays consistent. He’s a talented filmmaker, this is just the weakest script of the bunch—it happens to be by David S. Goyer.
The next batch of stories is handed over to H.P. Lovecraft, a longtime influence on Guillermo Del Toro. Keith Thomas (“The Vigil”) helms an adaptation of “Pickman’s Model,” which stars Ben Barnes as an art student who crosses paths with a mysterious gentleman played by Crispin Glover, going as all-in on weird accents and mannerisms as one familiar with his films would expect. Glover’s character sees something in the human condition that no one else can see, and his art opens our protagonist’s eyes to the world of terrifying demons that Lovecraft pioneered. There’s some striking imagery here but Thomas loses the tone a few times in an episode that feels long. Lovecraft is harder than he looks because he works in a manner that allows the imagination to run wild—his words conjure imagery in our minds that film can only seek to replicate.
Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight”) fares better in her Lovecraft tale, “Dreams in the Witch House,” which casts a fully committed Rupert Grint as a man trying so desperately to contact his dead twin sister that he crosses a supernatural line and unleashes something truly malevolent. Again, some of the imagery could have been refined, but this is one of the stronger chapters overall thanks largely to Grint’s all-in physical performance.
It all builds to the two best episodes of “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities,” a pair of absolute must-sees for any genre fan. Panos Cosmatos (“Mandy”) brings his unmistakable style to “The Viewing,” which stars Peter Weller as an unfathomably wealthy man who has invited four people to, well, a viewing. Not knowing what they’re going to see, these pioneers in their own right, including ones played by Eric Andre and Charlyne Yi, have their insecurities unpacked in a slow-burn first half that then explodes into Cosmatos-brand insanity in the climax. It’s impossible to really describe this one but people are going to be talking about it.
Finally, there’s the incredible “The Murmuring,” a perfect distillation of Jennifer Kent’s explorations of maternal terror and Del Toro’s haunted house mechanics in something like “Crimson Peak”—he wrote the short story on which it’s based. “The Babadook” star Essie Davis reunites with Kent to play a grieving mother who is temporarily residing in a haunted house with her husband, played excellently by Andrew Lincoln. As Kent turns up the supernatural incidents around Davis, the director’s mastery of sound design and framing elevate what could have been just another ghost story into something that’s unforgettable.
“The Murmuring,” “The Viewing,” “Graveyard Rats,” and “Dreams in the Witch House” are personal stand-outs, but the fun thing about an anthology series is that everyone will have different favorites. And the really fun thing about “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities” is that it will be hard to argue that any of them are complete disasters, something not even “Masters of Horror” could have said. Given the peaks that this series reaches and the overall quality of the filmmaking, this is a smashing success. Let’s open the cabinet again next year. [B+]
“Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities” debuts on Netflix on October 25.