Putting Guillermo del Toro’s name on something raises certain expectations. Whether he’s making superhero movies or goth novels, the director’s works all share certain sensibilities: a penchant for outcasts, incredible attention to detail, a seamless marriage of high and pop culture, and lots of really cool monsters. That all remains true in Cabinet of Curiosities, a horror anthology on Netflix. But it’s also much more than that: Although del Toro’s name is in the title, he has brought in a carefully curated group of directors, writers and actors to bring each story to life. The result is a collection of haunted stories spanning an incredible range of tones and styles.
Each episode begins the same: Del Toro introduces the evening’s story with a short monologue as he extracts strange objects from a literal cabinet of curiosities. It’s kind of a less embarrassing version of HBO’s opening spawn series. The series itself is a collection of eight standalone episodes, each about an hour long, all poking around the edges of horror. Some are outright ghost stories; others throw themselves into sci-fi. But they are all creepy in their own way. There’s also an interesting release cadence – two episodes are released daily for the rest of the week – which gives the whole thing a Halloween event feel.
What is most impressive about the anthology is the sheer variety on display. Even when episodes deal with seemingly similar topics, they’re not the same. For example, there are two Lovecraft adaptations: “Dreams in the Witch House” by Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke and “Pickman’s Model” by fire starter director Keith Thomas. The tones are completely different. The first is closer to a traditional ghost story, when a man (Rupert Grint) goes to great lengths to reach his sister, who died at a young age. It also has a monster that wouldn’t look out of place in The Labyrinth of Pan (and an appropriate dark twist). On the other hand, “Pickman’s Model” really reflects the descent into madness that is so common in Lovecraft’s work, with a painter (Crispin Glover) creating works so terrifying that seeing them drives people into dangerous darkness.
Likewise, there are two short films that combine both sci-fi and horror, but take that combination in strange, disparate directions. In “The Viewing”, Peter Weller plays a mysterious billionaire who invites a handful of experts from different backgrounds in his field to get their opinion on… something. For much of the story, aided by Mandydirector Panos Cosmatos, you just bask in the opulence as the anticipation builds to the big reveal. It’s all the best of ’80s style: a synth-heavy soundtrack, a plush conversation pit and copious lens flare along with mounds of cocaine. More importantly, the build-up is worth it, with a truly bizarre reveal that fits the mood perfectly. In contrast, “The Autopsy” is more of a murder mystery with possible alien elements reminiscent of Stephen King.
The range of creative voices Del Toro has gathered is truly impressive, resulting in some unique shorts. In “The Outside” – the only horror story I can think of that is about skin lotion – the director of A girl walks home alone at night (Ana Lily Amirpour) collaborates with one of the writers behind Brand New Cherry Flavor (Haley Z. Boston) to adapt an Emily Carroll story. It’s disturbing body horror at its finest.
There are also some great performances here that take the episodes to the next level: David Hewlett as a man frantically trying to keep his head above water in “Graveyard Rats,” Kate Micucci as a heartbreakingly lonely social outcast in “The Outside,” and Crispin Glover’s extremely creepy take on a ghostly painter in ‘Pickman’s Model’.
Since each episode is essentially a short story, almost all of them leave you wanting more – which can be frustrating in some cases. I absolutely have to see what happens after the credits roll into “The Viewing”. Other episodes end abruptly. But for the most part, that added mystery benefits the anthology, leaving gaps for you to fill in for yourself. In an age of over-stated cinematic universes, it’s refreshing to have a show that so trusts its viewers.
So yes, Cabinet of Curiosities is certainly something that will appeal to del Toro’s work. But it also goes beyond that horizon with a collection of very different takes on horror. It’s what I imagine wandering around pale house would be: a glimpse into del Toro’s mind through the work that inspires him.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities begins streaming on Netflix on October 25.