There are few safer bets than being a Guillermo del Toro fan. Whether he’s breathing life into a wooden puppet, having Sally Hawkins fall in love with a fish, or defending Martin Scorsese online, he is a seemingly endless source of delight. In the run-up to Halloween, he continues to bear fruit with his Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix), an eight-part series that is as elegant as it is grotesque. While it is assumed that in any anthology series there will be hits and misses, nothing in this cabinet is worth discarding.
Del Toro has written two of the episodes but “curated” them all, and assembled eight directors to create self-contained nightmares. He appears at the start of each, not unlike Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone. But Del Toro cuts a more sinister figure, with a firmly unsmiling expression as he ominously presents each episode as though it were a cursed object. The literal cabinet appears alongside him, an ornate wooden structure that resembles a many-tiered mansion; its contents, we are told, range from keys to bones to unicorn horns. Meanwhile, Del Toro’s cabinet is also brimming with some of 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 their offering rooted in Guillermo’s signature style of the twisted fairytale, packed with stomach-churning effects and morbid morality. This is a cabinet in which hubris leads you to hell and cruelty comes back tenfold.
The series starts with Lot 36, directed by Del Toro’s long-term collaborator Guillermo Navarro– who won an Oscar as the cinematographer of the director’s finest film, Pan’s Labyrinth. There are similar threads of fascism and fantasy in Lot 36, in which Tim Blake Nelson plays a military veteran slowly being swallowed whole 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 tiny cracks of humanity to remain compelling, even when he inevitably comes across a storage unit with truly horrific contents.
The series then plunges into its tautest tale, Graveyard Rats, from Vincenzo Natali who was behind the cult-classic Kafkaesque nightmare Cube. Adapted from the Henry Kuttner short story, the premise is simple: a grave-robber digs up a wealthy corpse, only to see it dragged away by a pack of rats. Undeterred, he pursues the vermin through dark and twisted tunnels and discovers something far worse down there. The journey through the tunnels is utterly foul and heart-stoppingly stressful. Equally horrific moments and grisly body-horror populate the pitch-black tale of The Autopsy, where Prior as a coroner’s office doctor encounters a corpse in need of 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 the fantastical potential of Del Toro and the cosmic dread of Lovecraft with a cast led by the always intriguing Crispin Glover. But most fantastical of all is The Viewing from Panos Cosmatos, director of the avant garde Nicolas Cage revenge flick Mandy. This drug trip gone wrong fable builds to a demonic figure that feels plucked from Del Toro’s coterie.
Throughout the series the tone shifts, but it always keeps one foot in Del Toro’s filmography; the dark humour of the Hellboy films is present in makeover nightmare The Outside, where Stacey (a brilliantly awkward Kate Micucci) plays an amateur taxidermist longing to fit in with her glamorous colleagues at the bank. Despite her husband’s (Martin Starr) protestations, she cannot resist the lure of Alo Glo, sold on television infomercials by a deliciously camp Dan Stevens. It’s a classic tale of “be careful what you wish for” done with all the panache you would expect of Del Toro and director Amirpour.
Perhaps the most significant deviation from the pack is the least scary but most haunting entry. The Murmuring sees Kent reunite with its star Essie Davis for a mournful tale of a pair of ornithologists retreating to a secluded home to research bird migrations and recover from a terrible loss. The piece has all the gentle sorrow of Kent’s work and the tragedy of Del Toro’s orphanage horror The Devil’s Backbone. It also perfectly encapsulates what makes Cabinet of Curiosities an absolute triumph. It lets film-makers draw inspiration from the master without squashing their own spirit, giving Del Toro plenty of delectably nasty tales to present to the viewer. There seems no better way to countdown to Halloween than this assurance that the state of horror is in safe, if sinister, hands.