Sommerleigh Pollonais, Horror Head Writer
You would be hard pressed to find a fan of the horror genre who doesn’t have at least one Guillermo del Toro movie they love. For this fan there’s not a single movie he made that I didn’t find entertaining on some level or another, and he’s easily one of my favourite directors, period.
So, it goes without saying I was excited at the possibilities that could unfold with someone like Del Toro at the helm (not to mention Netflix’s money and directorial freedom) for a series the likes of Cabinet of Curiosities. Taking inspiration from similar series such as The Twilight Zone or maybe a better example would be Masters of Horror, Del Toro introduces each episode by stepping out of the shadows and producing an item from the beautifully constructed cabinet with a bit of foreboding narration. There’s also a little wooden avatar of each director, a touch I liked a lot as most viewers would assume these stories are all from the mind of Del Toro himself when he actually co-wrote only two of the episodes (Lot 36 and The Murmuring). No, these stories and this series was the iconic director’s way of introducing wider audiences to the work of lesser-known genre directors like, David Prior (The Empty Man) Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) just to name a few.
While this list ranks the episodes, I want to emphasise how much I thoroughly enjoyed this series as a whole. And I hope we get many more seasons to come as Cabinet of Curiosities might be just another anthology horror series to some but for fans like myself, it’s easily one of the more visually unique ones I’ve seen in some time.
So, without further ado, here is my ranking of the beautiful gothic and gory tales found inside of Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.
#8 LOT 36 – Directed by Guillermo Navarro
Telling the story of a very unlikeable man named Nick (Tim Blake Nelson of The Incredible Hulk) who purchases abandoned storage units and sells what he finds to make money (if you’ve seen the television series Storage Wars, you’ll be familiar with this). He’s given an unfair advantage in his trade by paying a worker to let him know which ones might be valuable. During one of these auctions Nick buys a unit that turns out to have antique German furniture like a séance table. And hidden within are three books on demons and sorcery, but the fourth volume is missing. So, when Nick is told all four books together could bring him a huge pay day, he returns to the unit to retrieve it, only to discover something much worse hidden inside.
While Lot 36 isn’t high on my list, I found the performances to be solid, especially by lead Tim Blake Nelson whose portrayal of Nick as a bigoted and thoroughly unlikeable man still somehow manages to draw you in. It’s not particularly scary but the reveal and the design of the demon was well executed. It’s also not the strongest of episodes so it was surprising it was the first of the season, but watching Nick get his just desserts caps things off in a very satisfying way.
#7 THE VIEWING – Directed by Panos Cosmatos
A wealthy recluse Lionel Lassiter, played by none other than Peter Weller (RoboCop), invites the cream of the crop from different specialties such as music, science and even those with a background in the paranormal to his unique and isolated mansion to view his most prized possession. Before doing so they all take part in the best that drugs and alcohol has to offer as Lassiter says this will prepare them for what’s to come. However, when they’re finally allowed to view the object, things go all the way wrong, and it turns out no amount of money or expertise can prepare them for what emerges from the viewing.
Of all the tales told, The Viewing might just be the funniest, albeit it’s comedy of the darkest variety. Considering the casting here that wasn’t a complete surprise, as Lassiter’s guests include a music mogul played by comedian and actor Eric Andre as well as fellow comedians Charlyne Yi as a scientist and Steve Agee as a renowned author. The “viewing” itself comes at the end of the story and plays more like a bad acid trip so the deaths are all over the top and made me laugh more than anything else. That’s not to say the effects weren’t great as they most definitely were and made me think of horror movies like The Void or Cronenberg’s The Fly. It’s a slow build up to the final scene but the visuals, weird synth soundtrack and distinct lighting all made for an episode that evoked 70’s horror in the best of terms and an ending that makes you wonder if we’ll be revisiting this particular story in seasons to come.
#6 THE OUTSIDE – Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
Stacey is a woman who considers herself to be ugly and unappealing, even though her husband constantly reassures her she’s perfect as she is. Her co-workers are all glamourous women who spend their time gossiping and comparing beauty routines and Stacey feels like an outsider. Until one late night while watching television she sees an ad for a beauty cream that promises to completely remake her. As Stacey uses the cream her skin becomes badly blistered and her husband begs her to stop but Stacey believes the creator of the cream (Dan Stevens of Legion, The Guest, Downton Abbey) is talking directly to her through the ads. And as her mind becomes more and more unhinged, Stacey goes to the ultimate lengths to ensure she becomes the most beautiful woman she can be.
One thing I truly appreciated about this season of CoC is how each story seems to take place in a different era. In the case of The Outside the story is set in the 80s which was a perfect choice for a tale about the dangers of infomercials that ran constantly on television, lauding products that tend to do more harm than good. Actress Kate Micucci (The Big Bang Theory, Scrubs) nails it as the mousey and insecure Stacey and Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks) as her caring husband was the perfect and unexpected balance for Stacey. I honestly didn’t expect his character to be written that way, so it wasn’t only refreshing but it also made for engaging viewing.
Still The Outside may be the one episode here that feels like a better fit for a Tales from the Crypt episode than what Cabinet of Curiosities seemed to be going for. It loses momentum in places and does feel like it ran a tad too long. Still, it’s grounded by Micucci’s performance and made for a solid allegory about the perils of focusing too much on what one looks like on the outside.
#5 DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE – Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft short story, Dreams in a Witch House could be considered one of the more magical tales told here. So it’s fitting that Rupert Grint, most famously known as Ron Weasely of the Harry Potter franchise, plays the lead character of Walter Gilman.
As a child Walter not only witnesses his twin sister’s death but also sees her spirit afterwards as she’s dragged into a place called the Forest of Lost Souls. As an adult Walter has devoted his entire life to finding and rescuing his sister Epperly. He has no family of his own, lives in a dilapidated apartment and spends whatever little money he has on tracking down possible psychics that can help him find a way to the other realms. He’s eventually given a potion that allows him to enter the Forest of Lost Souls but in doing so Walter awakens an evil presence that targets the twins as a way to once again walk in the realm of the living.
While I don’t think of this one as scary (although there are a few moments that could rate as chilling) Dreams in a Witch House is the kind of dark fairytale I’ve always found enjoyable. Like Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint has done his share of acting outside of these types of roles, which somewhat helped me to not think of Ron Weasely every time I saw him on screen. However this does feel like a story that could’ve been pulled from a darker side of the HP franchise.
Themes of grief, guilt and the importance of letting go play well with this story and looking back at the whole season, I think this was the only story with a twist ending, one that’s equal parts sad and funny. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing a return to this story at some point but as it is the beautifully haunting visuals, wicked design choices for the witch and solid pacing made this a must see for fans of the darker side of magical horror stories.
#4 PICKMAN’S MODEL – Directed by Keith Thomas
Ben Barnes (The Punisher, Shadow and Bone) plays a young and charming art student who is enjoying his life with his beautiful girlfriend Rebecca as well as being an award-winning artist at his school. Everything turns decidedly darker though with the introduction of a new student named Pickman played by eccentric actor Crispin Glover (Back to the Future, Willard). Pickman’s art is deeply unsettling to look at, so much so that Will finds himself seeing the nightmarish creatures in the real world, and almost has a mental breakdown due to this. Years later Will is a successful art curator married to Rebecca and raising their son James, when Pickman once again enters the picture, dragging Will’s life once again into the dark. But this time he has much more to lose if the darkness wins.
Pickman’s Model is gothic horror at its best which is no surprise considering the original story was written by H.P. Lovecraft himself. It has gone on to become one of the author’s most popular works and has been adapted before in similar anthology fashion as an episode of the television show Night Gallery. This time around director Keith Thomas leans much more heavily into the themes of madness and art, two things that seemingly go hand-in-hand when you look at the history of the medium. Ben Barnes is no stranger to the genre, but he has definitely improved with experience and his portrayal of Will from young optimist to an older man who has seen too much of the darkness that lies beneath the surface is well-balanced and a perfect foil to match Pickman’s more obvious instability. The latter is a man who seems to have happily embraced these unsettling creatures so he can “share” them through his art.
The creature designs are both unique and somehow familiar as fans of Del Toro’s work in Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy can attest to. And the ending, while somewhat predictable, still manages to be impactful and fits beautifully as the kind of story one would expect from the minds behind a series such as this.
#3 THE AUTOPSY – Directed by David Prior
We’re getting into my favourites here, so I’ll try to keep things vague so as not to spoil the punchline.
Several miners are killed in a cave-in when a strange man releases a strange looking device, causing an explosion. A while later the town’s sheriff invites an old friend and coroner, Dr Carl Winters (veteran actor F. Murray Abraham) to perform autopsies on the bodies in the hope of finding out what happened to them. The answer is unlike anything both men could’ve expected.
Set in a town that seems straight out of a Stephen King novel and utilising the perfect pacing for such an amazing reveal, The Autopsy proved to me David Prior, who previously gave us the underrated The Empty Man, is no one trick pony. The mystery of what happened to these men isn’t difficult to figure out, but the reason behind the attack is unlike anything I’ve seen before. And the final scene, which gives viewers some of the best practical effects I’ve seen in an autopsy since possibly John Carpenter’s The Thing, will have your eyes unblinkingly glued to the screen!
Yes, I just compared The Autopsy to my favourite horror movie of all time; that’s how much I enjoyed this outing. And while I wouldn’t call it scary, the reveal totally sucks you in and the visuals are stellar. Add to that the use of lighting, the solid pacing and the back and forth between actors F. Murray Abraham and Luke Roberts in the final act makes this the episode I would recommend first if I was trying to convince someone to check out this show.
#2 GRAVEYARD RATS -Directed by Vincenzo Natali
David Hewlett (Stargate: Atlantis) shines in the role of Masson, a grave robber with money troubles who comes across a body of an affluent man in the morgue. His mouth is chock-full of gold fillings and his family decided to bury him with his best jewelry as well as a sword (or cutlass for Forged in Fire fans out there) gifted to him by King Edward. But Masson has a problem on his hands as rats have been stealing the bodies before he can rob them. And after things go awry during his caper, Masson finds himself forced to crawl deeper and deeper into the depths of the earth to retrieve his much-needed prize.
I found out there’s a black and white version of this tale coming out and I can’t wait to see it as Graveyard Rats is a story tailor-made for that aesthetic of classic horror. Hewlett considers himself quite the orator and so he narrates a lot of the story while it unfolds, which may have been annoying in the hands of another actor but Hewlett’s accent and speech pattern nails it and it all works quite well to fill in those moments where the character is alone.
This short story by Henry Kuttner only gets wilder as Masson allows his greed to lure him deeper into the underground world that exists beneath his city. And if you’re claustrophobic like I am, these are the kinds of scenes that will have your heart beating faster. Add to that loads of rats, a giant mother rat and something entirely worse and you have yourself a solid tale of greed and comeuppance that, like the gold Masson is after, shines a bit brighter than the rest.
#1 THE MURMURING – Directed by Jennifer Kent
Nancy (Essie Davis of The Babadook) and husband Edgar (Andrew Lincoln of The Walking Dead) are ornithologists who study bird murmurations, which watching this I learned is the flocking/swarming action small birds like starlings do while they fly. To do this, and as a way to help them get over their daughter’s death, Nancy and Edgar go to a remote country house where starlings nest nearby. But things quickly turn eerie when Nancy begins hearing strange sounds in the house. A baby’s cries, footsteps and a child’s voice (just to name a few) build over time and cause more tension between the couple as Edgar believes Nancy is suffering from lack of sleep and grief (Edgar doesn’t see or hear the phenomenon) while Nancy finds herself pulled deeper into finding out the secrets of the old house.
As I mentioned before, I enjoyed all of these episodes but I would be lying if I said they were scary. That all changed with this final episode of the season. Talk about saving the best for last!
I should’ve expected nothing less from the writer/director of one of the best modern day horror movies The Babadook and bringing back Essie Davis in the role of Nancy just goes to show how well these women work together. Similar to The Babadook, The Murmuring explores the importance of dealing with one’s grief as Nancy has repressed her pain so much, she no longer has the ability to show affection towards her husband and she’s never allowed herself to cry for the loss of her daughter.
The stellar sound design, or maybe I should say the smart choice to omit sound in the most haunting of scenes, went a long way in making those moments deeply chilling. The design and lighting turn the house into a character all its own and the two leads are fantastic together.
Basically The Murmuring gets a standing ovation as the best of all the episodes and ended the season on a resounding high. Overall Cabinet of Curiosities was a solid outing and a great mix of themes as well as subgenres of horror.
One can only hope Netflix and Guillermo Del Toro keep these stories coming so we can have ourselves yet another wonderful horror anthology series to sink our teeth into or, in this case, a cabinet of curiosities worth exploring.
So that’s my list. How would you rank the eight episodes? And you can check out more horror anthology content below:
Sommerleigh of the House Pollonais. First of Her Name. Sushi Lover, Queen of Horror Movies, Comic Books and Binge Watching Netflix. Mother of two beautiful black cats named Vader and Kylo. I think eating Popcorn at the movies should be mandatory, PS4 makes the best games ever, and I’ll be talking about movies until the zombie apocalypse comes.
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