As someone who owns a house entirely devoted to storing genre memorabilia, Guillermo del Toro is as qualified as anyone to be a modern tastemaker for horror. If that’s not enough, the enthusiasm he shows for the material is infectious—he’s basically a teddy bear with an affinity for all things gothic. It’s only fitting, then, that the Oscar-winning filmmaker lends his curatorial hand to Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, the horror anthology that feels like Netflix’s answer to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Introducing each episode by opening compartments to an actual cabinet of curiosities—an antiquated method of collecting unique artifacts dating back to the 16th century—del Toro invites the audience to experience something strange and macabre.
For better or worse, being a sinister emcee is the most notable contribution del Toro makes to the series that bears his name. While del Toro originally planned to helm an episode, pandemic-induced production delays on Nightmare Alley and his Pinocchio remake required him to step away from a more active role. (Of the eight installments, two are based on original stories from del Toro, who also cowrote one of the teleplays.) But with del Toro’s absence behind the camera, Cabinet of Curiosities instead relies on a murderers’ row of exciting filmmakers who have made their mark in horror, including Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), David Prior (The Empty Man), Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), and Panos Cosmatos (Mandy). As a result, Cabinet of Curiosities is best appreciated as a showcase for how the genre can house such an intriguing range of tones and ideas.
Released across a four-day period on Netflix this week, Cabinet of Curiosities’ episodes are most effective when reflecting the sensibilities of their respective directors. Fresh off The Empty Man, which developed a cult following less than a year after being unceremoniously dumped in theaters at the height of the pandemic, Prior’s “The Autopsy” conjures an eerie, Lovecraftian atmosphere not unlike his breakout hit. Following a medical examiner (played by F. Murray Abraham) inspecting the corpses of men who died in a bizarre mining incident, “The Autopsy” taps into the familiar fear that, if we aren’t alone in the cosmos, whatever is out there is indifferent to our suffering. It’s thrilling to watch Prior—who has a relatively thin directorial résumé outside of making-of documentaries for several David Fincher movies—develop his own trademarks as a filmmaker. (Between The Empty Man and “The Autopsy,” Prior has an interesting preoccupation with people interlocking their fingers.)
If it’s clear from the opening moments of “The Autopsy” that something is amiss, then Cosmatos’s “The Viewing” excels by disarming its characters—and by extension the audience—with a sheer abundance of style. In “The Viewing,” which takes place in the ’70s, a mysterious mogul (Peter Weller) invites an eclectic group of strangers to his opulent home with the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But before they can get to the viewing in question, everyone snorts a line of grade-A coke at the behest of their host and engages in dorm-room philosophizing. Accompanied by orange-hued mood lighting and a synth-heavy score I’m desperately looking to download, “The Viewing” reaffirms Cosmatos as a filmmaker who lets his entrancing aesthetic choices do the heavy lifting—at least until the episode reaches an icky conclusion that owes a debt to David Cronenberg.
Of course, few directors operate on Cosmatos’s chaotic frequency—on the opposite end of the spectrum is Kent’s sophisticated and understated entry, “The Murmuring.” Taking place on a secluded island where married ornithologists (Essie Davis and Andrew Lincoln) study the synchronized flight patterns of dunlin birds, it’s evident the couple are trying to recover from an unspeakable tragedy. (Naturally, the house they’re staying in has its own devastating history that haunts its corridors.) Like The Babadook, which also starred Davis, Kent supplies the scares as an extension of the characters’ grief, and the enduring struggle to overcome it. Compared to the uncompromising violence and gnarly creatures across the other entries in the series, “The Murmuring” is a refreshing change of pace—horror that leads with its heart.
While it’s a notable deviation in tone, “The Murmuring” isn’t the only Cabinet of Curiosities episode predicated on a marriage in crisis. Set during the holiday season, Amirpour’s “The Outside” sees Stacey (Kate Micucci), a meek bank teller, lather herself in a skin lotion peddled by her cliquey coworkers at a Secret Santa party. Much to the dismay of her husband, Keith (Martin Starr), Stacey keeps applying the lotion even after it causes an extreme allergic reaction. (In a surreal touch, the founder of the product, played by a magnificently campy Dan Stevens, talks to Stacey through her TV screen and assures her that pain is part of the healing process.) As a cautionary tale about the dangers of conformity—take a shot every time Keith tells his wife that he loves her just the way she is—“The Outside” is treading in familiar territory. But the same can’t be said of Stacey’s grotesque transformation: an unforgettable entry in the body-horror canon that made me want to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist ASAP.
The other four installments in Cabinet of Curiosities, directed by frequent del Toro cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, Vincenzo Natali (Cube), Keith Thomas (Firestarter), and Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight), don’t do quite enough to distinguish themselves. The two episodes adapting H.P. Lovecraft short stories, Thomas’s “Pickman’s Model” and Hardwicke’s “Dreams in the Witch House,” are capable of channeling the late author’s distinct brand of cosmic dread only in fleeting moments. Meanwhile, two thematically linked entries centered on deplorable scavengers—Navarro’s “Lot 36,” following Tim Blake Nelson as a racist veteran rummaging through dead people’s storage spaces, and Natali’s “Graveyard Rats,” in which a caretaker loots corpses from his own cemetery—deliver predictable, and somewhat anticlimactic, payoffs. (The creature designs, however, are top-notch.)
The range in episode quality from meh to great shouldn’t come as a surprise—no anthology series is expected to bat a thousand. Instead, it’s worth celebrating what Cabinet of Curiosities represents: del Toro using his industry clout so that other genre filmmakers can access Netflix’s considerable resources. (If nothing else, the streamer spared no expense on practical effects and production design across the board.) Provided the series is renewed—make it happen, Netflix—it remains to be seen whether del Toro will find an opening in his busy schedule to direct an entry, or whether any filmmakers from the first season would return. But after an initial batch of episodes that had many moments of genuine ingenuity, here’s hoping Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities still has some creepy cupboards left to open.