Spoiler-free review of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. First two episodes available October 25, two new episodes each day through October 28 on Netflix.
Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is presented as a collection of stories from highly talented directors, each one poised to thrill viewers in a unique way. Nevertheless, this desired result is elusiveas the Cabinet struggles to deliver a cohesive nightmarish experience.
Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is a horror anthology in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Del Toro himself provides introductions for all eight episodes, emerging from the shadows to hint at what is to come, with the Cabinet itself also present. A few turns of the crank reveal a secret compartment containing an object related to the episode in question and a small miniature representing its director. Del Toro is clearly enjoying himself as a host. He believes in the merits of each story. That belief is contagious; the setting and the cryptic words help build anticipation.
This setup is more than just a nod to the anthologies of yesteryear. Acting as a means of planting certain expectationsallows each episode to more easily evade the intended results. The Outside, the episode directed by A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night director Ana Lily Amirpour, is a case in point. She embraces various philosophies about the status of her characters in relation to an electronic device. Most will recognize that something is wrong thanks to the disturbing messages that permeate much of the dialogue. But the real horror is subtle, until it isn’t, at which point any preconceived notions are shattered.
Almost all the episodes are presented like this. Some are more terrifying than others, especially the ones with more classic depictions of a certain monster. But the general emphasis seems to be on conveying intriguing concepts in new and unsettling waysessentially creating something that will linger in one’s mind long after the credits have rolled.
The fact of having an hour long helps in this regard. The characters have room to breathe before they are engulfed in darkness, making it easy for us to get involved in their problems. Kate Micucci’s clumsy portrayal of Stacey in The Outside is memorable not only because of her strong performance, but also because it gives her time to get into her character; who she is at the beginning she differs greatly from the person she becomes towards the end. Essie Davis and Andrew Lincoln do a great job playing grieving parents in The Murmuring, while Rupert Grint’s heartfelt performance in Dreams in the Witch House is certainly remarkable, if a bit tongue-in-cheek considering his previous roles.
All episodes benefit from adequate length, solid acting and what is supposed to be a decent budget, considering that most ghosts, witches and other creepy crawlies look great. The directors do not skimp on violence either. Evocative yet believable imagery is the norm. However, not all episodes reach the highest bar. Graveyard Rats, the episode directed by Vincenzo Natali, is quite mundane. Most of its duration is spent in a long exposition before culminating in a predictable anticlimactic finale.
Taken together, the anthology does enough to warrant a couple of late-night viewings.
The same goes for Lot 36. Although the dialogues between the characters are much better, they also end in a forgettable way. However, the biggest offender would be The Viewing. Relying solely on a “high” concept and well-written but exhaustive dialogue, she betrays the rest of the series by being downright boring. Its chaotic ending does not even remotely justify the time invested in building it.
There’s also the notion of it being a genre-defying collection, a group of stories that will somehow change the way fans view horror. But some of the episodes do the exact opposite, clinging to old tropes. As entertaining as Dreams in the Witch House is, it sadly reduces its black characters to sidekicks and/or sacrificial lambs.
Fortunately, most of the eight episodes are entertaining. Body horror, a foreboding atmosphere, intriguing concepts expressed in frightening ways…there’s plenty for horror fans to enjoy. The uneven nature of Guillermo del Toro’s The Cabinet of Curiosities prevents the series from being the incredible journey into the macabre that it is supposed to be. That said, as a whole, the anthology does enough to warrant a couple of late-night viewings.
Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities offers horror fans unique thrills. Although the various monsters are well designed, it’s the creepy atmosphere and unsettling visuals that often sell the horror. Most of what is presented is conceptually sound and the cast of each episode delivers credible performances. Having said that, uneven quality of stories shows that not even del Toro has been able to escape the pitfalls typical of most horror anthologies. Some episodes are certainly better than others.