It’s always sort of difficult to know what you can reasonably expect from a feature film or anthology TV series whose marketing revolves around its status as having been “produced by” an icon of the industry. How much creative input did that marquee name really possess, and how much will the final product reflect their sensibilities? How much does it matter? Look at the CBS reboot of The Twilight Zone from 2019 for an example of how such a concept can yield less-than-satisfying results. That show’s status as “produced by Jordan Peele,” who also served as episode host and narrator, gave it massive initial exposure and consumer interest, but the actual episodes too often proved to be blunt and clumsily direct, lacking any of the subtlety present in Peele’s own satires. Nor was Peele participating as writer or episode director, at least in that show’s first season—and by the time the second arrived, interest seemed to have withered in yet another uninspired Twilight Zone reboot.
Guillermo del Toro is another one of those Hollywood luminaries whose name is often wielded as a selling point to genre fans—the ultra-prolific filmmaker is famous for his attachment and rumored attachment to numerous projects, some of which materialize and some of which never come to be. The man has established such a recognizable niche for himself, in fact, that “Guillermo del Toro” is frequently spoken as a genre of its own, that fantastical mixture of wide-eyed wonder, scares and emotion that typify the director’s most beloved works, movies like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. And it’s safe to say that a number of lesser productions have tried to imply they possess that same mixture by sticking del Toro’s name front and center: “Produced by Guillermo del Toro” has a tendency to sometimes be featured more prominently in a film’s marketing than its actual director.
And so, in first approaching Netflix’s new Cabinet of Curiosities, it’s natural to wonder how much of a Guillermo del Toro project this really is. The horror anthology series is volunteered by the streaming service as “a collection of the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s personally curated stories, described as both equally sophisticated and horrific,” and del Toro steps into the host role himself, pulling forth trinkets from the titular cabinet to introduce each tale. But can the actual segments stand up to their association with a beloved director? Are the two episodes that GDT had a hand in writing enough to put his stamp on the series? And can the artistry of those other episodes reflect a similar level of virtuosity?
To get right to the point: I needn’t have worried. Cabinet of Curiosities is a genuinely gorgeous collection of tales, featuring some of the most impressive visuals, production design and general cinematic craftsmanship that has been seen in the streaming world in recent memory. Its tales are often on the somewhat conventional side, but they succeed through sheer filmmaking talent and professionalism, guided by the hands of some of the genre’s very best talents. This is the rare case where an anthology series can tell me that the luminary of a host/producer personally approved of the output of all of these filmmakers, and I truly believe it. Watching these episodes, I can imagine del Toro smiling in approval.
Opening episode “Lot 36” is perhaps a good example of the pleasures that Cabinet of Curiosities has to offer—it was co-written by del Toro and directed by his close collaborator, Mexican cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who lensed The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the resulting tale is truly beautiful to look at, a masterclass of shot composition with a sense of visual richness and tactile, on-screen textures that you simply don’t find often in the world of streaming horror content. The story is honestly nothing to write home about, and it’s clear from the halfway point exactly where this tale of an abandoned storage unit full of demonic paraphernalia is going, but it’s hard to care much about familiar tropes when one is looking at a work of art that is so beautifully executed and brought to life. Every object in that storage locker seems to radiate ominous portent, or tragic history. Every inch of the facility looks lovingly designed and obsessed over by the production design team. This same story, in the hands of a mercenary director, would have been nothing of any particular interest, even with the talents of star Tim Blake Nelson unchanged. But with Guillermo Navarro to guide it, “Lot 36” is a sumptuous little journey into the cast-away wreckage of a man’s life.
Familiar horror beats and clear artistic tributes to other genre classics are also represented in stories such as “The Murmuring,” one of the few tales in Cabinet of Curiosities to not feature a latex-clad, practical effects monster. This one, likewise featuring contribution from del Toro in the writer’s room, was directed by The Babadook and The Nightingale’s Jennifer Kent, and stands out as an emotional, grief-drenched tribute to films such as Don’t Look Now and The Changeling. Andrew Lincoln and Essie Davis portray a pair of middle-aged ornithologists on a research retreat, grappling with their dissolving marriage in the face of inaccessible feelings of grief, as they waltz gradually into a mystery involving bird flocks and the long-buried sins of a stately mansion’s former residents. It’s another beautifully crafted but conventional gothic chiller; familiar material elevated by the skill of the writer and director with characterization and composition. When it pulls a tear from your unwilling eye in the closing moments—thanks to the superstar work of Lincoln and Davis as well—don’t be afraid of a little catharsis.
Now, this is not to say that there’s no weirdo ambition to be found in Cabinet of Curiosities, because it can occasionally deliver on that front as well. A key example is episode three standout “The Autopsy,” which I have a feeling will perhaps be the most audience-lauded segment of the series. Directed by The Empty Man’s David Prior, it combines detail-rich composition—often taking time to linger on the smallest nuances of setting—with an absolutely crazy final 20 minutes, in which one of the strangest conversations imaginable ensues between stars Luke Roberts and the beloved F. Murray Abraham. Suffice to say, I don’t want to give away the nature of this bizarre, science fiction-inflected story, but it’s sure to scratch an itch for horror fans craving both originality and truly gross practical effects. The squeamish will find no home here.
As we brace for the Halloween holiday, I have to wonder why Netflix waited until so late in the month of October to premiere Cabinet of Curiosities. Most of these eight episodes approach feature length status, and they don’t exactly make for “binge material”—each one is so lovingly crafted that it really needs air around it to breathe. The immediate and precipitous drop-off in interest in streaming horror content following the Halloween holiday would suggest that many viewers will have only a brief window of “seasonal” appreciation in which to consume these nearly 8 hours of horror content, when they could have enjoyed a wider window of relevancy by releasing the anthology series a few weeks earlier. The true horror geeks will of course take the time to fully digest the series regardless of the date on the calendar, but there’s no denying that many viewers primarily have interest in horror during a relatively short window. Here’s hoping that the remaining time in October is enough for them to really appreciate the craftsmanship of Cabinet of Curiosities. At the very least, I think Guillermo del Toro can be quite proud to have his sought-after name attached to this particular project.
Jim Vorel is a Paste Magazine staff writer and resident horror buff. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.
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