Tthere are few safer bets than being a Guillermo del Toro fan. Whether he’s bringing a wooden doll to life, making Sally Hawkins fall in love with a fish, or defending Martin Scorsese online, he’s a seemingly endless source of pleasure. Leading up to Halloween, he’s still paying off with his Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix), an eight-part series that’s as elegant as it is grotesque. While it’s believed there will be hits and misses in every anthology series, nothing in this cabinet is worth throwing away.
Del Toro wrote two of the episodes, but “curated” them all, gathering eight directors to create nightmares in their own right. He appears at the beginning of each, not unlike Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone. But Del Toro cuts a more sinister figure, with a decidedly unsmiling expression as he ominously presents each episode as if it were a cursed object. The literal closet appears next to him, an ornate wooden structure resembling a many-storey mansion; the contents, we are told, range from keys to bones to unicorn horns. Meanwhile, Del Toro’s cabinet is also buzzing with the most exciting voices in horror, including Jennifer Kent of The Babadook, Ana Lily Amirpour of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and David Prior of The Empty Man. But each keeps its offering rooted in Guillermo’s signature twisted fairy tale style, brimming with stomach-cramping effects and morbid morality. This is a cabinet where hubris leads you to hell and cruelty returns ten times over.
The series begins with Lot 36, directed by Guillermo Navarro, a longtime collaborator of Del Toro, who won an Oscar as cinematographer on the director’s best picture, Pan’s Labyrinth. There are similar threads of fascism and fantasy in Lot 36, in which Tim Blake Nelson plays a military veteran who is slowly swallowed by “alt-right” talking points. He spends his days being chased by debt collectors and selling the contents of abandoned storage units. Blake Nelson is phenomenal, playing all the bitterness and selfishness of his fascist brainwashing, but keeping enough little cracks of humanity to remain compelling, even when he inevitably encounters a storage space with some truly horrific content.
The series then delves into the most exciting story, Graveyard Rats, by Vincenzo Natali, who was behind the cult classic Kafkaesque nightmare Cube. Adapted from Henry Kuttner’s short story, the premise is simple: A grave robber digs up a rich corpse, only to find it dragged away by a pack of rats. Undeterred, he chases the vermin through dark and twisting tunnels and discovers something far worse down there. The journey through the tunnels is downright nasty and blood-curdlingly stressful. Equally horrific moments and grisly body horror populate the pitch-black tale of The Autopsy, where Prior, a coroner, encounters a corpse that needs more than a ’cause of death’.
Meanwhile, HP Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model is in the hands of The Vigil director Keith Thomas, who embraces Del Toro’s fantastic potential and Lovecraft’s cosmic fear with a cast led by the ever-intriguing Crispin Glover. But most fantastic of all is The Viewing by Panos Cosmatos, director of the avant-garde Nicolas Cage revenge film Mandy. This fable about a drug trip gone wrong builds to a demonic figure who feels snatched from Del Toro’s coterie.
The tone shifts throughout the series, but it always keeps one foot in Del Toro’s filmography; the dark humor of the Hellboy movies is present in makeover nightmare The Outside, where Stacey (a brilliantly clumsy Kate Micucci) plays an amateur taxidermist who longs to match her glamorous colleagues at the bank. Despite her husband’s (Martin Starr) protests, she can’t resist the temptation of Alo Glo, sold on TV infomercials by delightful camp Dan Stevens. It’s a classic tale of “be careful what you wish for,” done with all the panache you’d expect from Del Toro and director Amirpour.
Perhaps the most significant deviation from the pack is the least scary yet most terrifying entry. In The Murmuring, Kent is reunited with his star Essie Davis for a sad story about a pair of ornithologists who retreat to a remote home to research bird migrations and recover from a terrible loss. The play has all the soft sadness of Kent’s work and the tragedy of Del Toro’s orphanage horror The Devil’s Backbone. It also perfectly sums up what makes Cabinet of Curiosities an absolute triumph. It lets filmmakers draw inspiration from the master without crushing their own minds, allowing Del Toro to present plenty of ravishingly nasty stories to the viewer. There seems to be no better way to countdown to Halloween than this assurance that the state of horror is in safe, albeit sinister, hands.