By Zach Hagadone
When future cultural excavators opine on the finest films of the early 21st century, it is certain that Pan’s Labyrinth, from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, will be near the top of the list. The 2006 horror-fantasy, set amid the insanity of Fascist Spain in the 1940s, earned three Oscars in 2007, including Best Direction, Cinematography and Makeup, as well as nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Music and Best Writing/Original Screenplay.
All of these accolades were well earned — Pan’s Labyrinth being a warlock’s-brew of woozy otherworldliness, populated by side-eyed grotesqueries that make Alice in Wonderland look like a spin around Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
The film also cemented del Toro as one of the truly great auteurs of his age, though his work has also wowed audiences from The Devil’s Backbone (2001) to the Hellboy films (2004 and 2008) to The Shape of Water (2017) and Nightmare Alley (2021). As a producer/writer he had a hand in The Orphanage (2007), Mama (2013) and The Book of Life (2014) — we won’t dwell on his involvement with the underwhelming Hobbit trilogy from 2012-’14.
All this is to say that del Toro possesses a vision of horror that is singular for his time, penetrating to deeper terrors than the semi-sympathetic (all-too-human) true-crimey psychopaths that far lazier filmmakers serve up to even lazier film viewers.
It’s no coincidence that any documentary on the life and works of early-20th century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft features del Toro’s grinning roly-poly face — complete with super-thick spectacles — waxing eloquent in his even thicker accent about the length and breadth of “cosmic horror.” He’s in that club of artistic necromancers, which has been reaffirmed with the limited Netflix series Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, which slid onto the streaming service two one-hour episodes at a time during the week before Halloween.
For those of us who aren’t of the proper vintage to have seen Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone in their respective heydays, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities provides a taste of what we missed. (And, no, Tales from the Crypt doesn’t compare.)
This anthology of eight short pieces serves to showcase the talents of a number of directors: Guillermo Navarro, Vincenzo Natali, David Prior, Ana Lily Amirpour, Keith Thomas, Catherine Hardwicke, Panos Cosmatos and Jennifer Kent — some of whom wrote their own material, adapted their stories from del Toro’s writing or took inspiration from short stories by writers like Henry Kuttner, Michael Shea, Emily Carroll and (of course) Lovecraft.
Del Toro could have easily made the series all about himself — he introduces each episode, a la Hitchcock, walking out onto a black soundstage with his own prodigious rotundity draped in a black suit as he fiddles with the knobs and latches of a real-life “cabinet of curiosities.” He opens little doors and drawers to reveal an object specific to each story, queing up the given episode with a brief poetic preface before producing a small carved statue of each creator, and away we go.
It’s a quaint structural nod to those horror series of old, and situates del Toro as the master of ceremonies, rather than the prime mover, which he is. This is his freak show, but he’s stepping back to give the other creators their space to shine, however darkly. And, frankly, the darker they shine, the better.
The first episode introduces us to a damaged war veteran sometime in the 1980s who makes his living reselling the contents of people’s storage units. He’s been radicalized by right-wing radio, and is the kind of asshole who has become all too common (played to perfection by Tim Blake Nelson), but even his pissy bigotries pale to what he finds in “Lot 36.”
Then we have “Graveyard Rats,” in which a corrupt cemetery caretaker gets much more than he bargains for when trying to pay off his gambling debts by robbing his subterranean clients of their worldly goods. This is easily one of the most stress-inducing episodes of the series.
“The Autopsy” is a wise rumination on mortality that I don’t want to write much more about for fear of spoiling it. Suffice it to say, it stars no less than F. Murray Abraham. Enough said. (It’s also probably my favorite of the pieces.)
“The Outside” is a masterful black-humor morality tale about the wages of sin — specifically, vanity — starring Kate Micucci, who can summarize the entire DSM-5 with the motion of her eyelids.
There are two episodes based on Lovecraft stories — “Pickman’s Model,” featuring Crispin Glover as the titular doom-struck artist — and “Dreams in the Witch House,” with no less than Rupert “Ron Weasley” Grint as the grotty, bereaved paranormal researcher.
Peter Weller takes centerstage in “The Viewing,” which is both the most visually weird and flattest of the episodes, followed by “The Murmuring,” a del Toro story that burns slow but picks up with some serious Hitchcock homages (semi-spoiler: birds).
All in all, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is grisly-gory (emphasis on this); thinky; and impeccably written, directed, cast, acted, organized and set designed. It’s exactly what we should expect from a real master of his craft. All episodes now streaming on Netflix.
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