Cabinet of Curiosities, a superficial journey through the horror cliché
Guillermo del Toro resumes his collaboration with Netflix, this time as the creator of a horror anthology series. Cabinet of Curiosities opens with Del Toro himself, who unfortunately lacks the Hogwarts-like charisma that the setting and atmosphere demand. The Academy Award-winning director delivers a speech that seeks to be a mysterious introduction to this horror journey. He appears accompanied by the cabinet of curiosities, this metaphorical concept that links the episodes. The cabinet contains a specific item for each episode, as well as a miniature statuette of their director. Del Toro seems pleased with himself as the host but, unfortunately, is deeply uninteresting.
Only two of the episodes are co-written by Del Toro, so he could, at most, be regarded as a curator of this collection of horror stories. Each episode has a different director, hence the lack of coherence in terms of style and quality. Still, that wouldn’t have stopped me from appreciating the miniseries if it hadn’t been littered with clichés and uninspired narrative tropes. But let’s take them one at a time.
Lot 36 is directed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and follows a callous veteran trying to get out of debt. Nick purchases the rights to an abandoned storage room lot from a mysterious butcher (he dies of a heart attack in the first few minutes of the episode). Nick is xenophobic, racist and lacks empathy. All of this seems to backfire, but the protagonist (Tim Blake Nelson) is unconvincing and lacks substance. Despite setting out to satirize some aspects of fascism, the episode doesn’t muster enough plot to justify a vapid, caricatural, devoid-of-compassion character who doesn’t show any major change throughout the narrative arc.
Graveyard Rats is the second episode, directed by the same Vincenzo Natali who directed the cult horror Cube. Of course, such a notable name bears the expectation of a phenomenal adaptation of Henry Kuttner’s story, which has a very relatable premise for any fan of the genre. Natali places the action somewhere in the 19th century. Masson, the main character, is a grave robber obsessed with the fact that rats seem to get to the buried corpses before him. Visually, the episode is full of details that kill the mystery. We are once again following a story with no breakthrough and no definite conclusion. Narratively, the story hints towards the idea that the dead unearthed by Masson will rise up and take revenge, instead it’s the rats who take revenge. And it’s only at the end that we discover that they have an underground cult dedicated to … Cthulhu (cosmic entity found in Lovecraft’s work). The connection with the Cthulhu reference is neither explained nor justified. Although it includes turning points and key moments, the episode is disappointing because they don’t build to the climax, and Masson will do anything to get rich – nothing seems to scare/ move/ impress him.
The third episode, however, was a pleasant surprise. The Autopsy (directed by David Prior) constantly oscillates between fiction and reality, between substance and ambiguity, facilitated by a panning camera, the gloomy atmosphere of the autopsy room, and very well-condensed acting. A coroner (F. Murray Abraham) and a police officer (Glynn Turman) work together to unravel the mystery behind several unexplained deaths: most of the corpses show abnormalities, such as the complete lack of blood in certain parts of the body. The scientific approach strengthens the plausibility of the events and maintains the fantasy that such cases might actually exist. Dr. Carl Winters records his observations during the autopsies, and the character’s discoveries become personal revelations in the plot that gradually unfolds before us. The reality-anchored narrative, the doctor’s well-balanced performance, the scientific discourse, and the ambiguity in dealing with the possibility of a supernatural being – all this translates into a consistent sci-fi thriller and horror production.
The Outside (directed by Ana Lily Amirpour) is the best episode of the series and, in my opinion, fits perfectly into the new wave of horror, thanks to its atypical topic and color palette. Kate Micucci stars as Stacey, a very deep and interesting black swan. Stacey sees herself as inadequate, unfit, flawed. The bright setting that introduces the protagonist, on a Christmas evening, shows rather an unusual approach, outside the horror and thriller convention. The other female characters are portrayed in a caricatural manner, while she and her husband seem human and natural. Their faces and dilemmas are highlighted by close-ups and true-to-life conversations, the only thing that haunts their relationship is Stacey’s progressive obsession to transform, to become someone or something else. The story presents the viewer with two plausible, equally terrifying ideas. The first is that the Alo Glo lotion, which the protagonist buys out of desperation to become beautiful, causes hallucinations that prompt her further actions. The second is that in a deeply patriarchal society nothing is above being beautiful, not even the unconditional love of a husband. In reality, it’s the monsters created by our own imagination that are the truly grotesque ones.
Catherine Hardwicke, the director of Twilight, also signs an episode of the series – Dreams of The Witch House, which is a disaster. Walter, whose twin sister dies early in the film, searches for her in purgatory, with the aid of what appears to be a hallucinogenic drug, determined to bring her back. It’s not your typical horror. The visual style and Rupert Grint in the lead role rather place the film in the fantasy area, which became famous thanks to the Harry Potter movies. The first indication that there might be another dimension creates some expectations related to its nature and structure – which the episode, unfortunately, does not live up to. The shamanic context in which Walter discovers the drug designed to take him to purgatory is rather funny than mystical. Purgatory itself is devoid of personality. Ten years after the Twilight phenomenon (which was indeed a phenomenon), there is still something comical and frivolous in Hardwicke’s style, though now it has lost the popularity it gained then (only) due to a series of favorable events.
The Viewing triggered in me the most visceral reaction, and not in the way a horror movie should. A wealthy recluse invites a musician, a novelist, a medium and an astrophysicist to his home. The mansion is a surreal and futuristic paradise where they are served cocaine and fairy dust. The story offers no indication as to why they were chosen, why they are asked to remain silent on the way to the mansion, why they have to use cocaine, and so on. Visually, the film looks from start to end like a big-budget commercial for a posh perfume, and the camera movements are inconsistent and benefit in no way the story; I can’t think of any reason why director Panos Cosmatos chooses to jump from one visual aesthetic to another. At least the other episodes don’t pretend to be more than they are, whereas here the director makes improper use of stylistic tricks employed by the eighties horrors: long takes, overexposure, futuristic aesthetics. The film aims to look like Reanimator (1985) or The Dead Zone (1983) but ends up depicting a universe completely out of sync with the narrative thread.
The redundant dialogue, the unclear or poorly developed character motivations, and the refusal to exploit key plot moments make it impossible to build tension in most episodes. Some of the directorial solutions are interesting, given the premise, but they follow the same trodden path of the horror genre.
For these reasons, I think Cabinet of Curiosities can only be enjoyed by viewers who do not expect anything original or unconventional and are content with the small visual surprises and moments of brilliance the series offers from time to time. And I also think that Del Toro used the capitalistic opportunity to ideologically repeat some clichés about the scary sides of humanity, anthropomorphized creatures and magical objects, but the show is not consistent in terms of quality and doesn’t live up to the name on the poster.
Ana Dumitraşcu is a film and theater actress. She is especially known for Immaculate directed by Monica Stan and George Chiper Lillemark. She is currently studying film production, due to her passion for film. He writes reviews for the Romanian publication FILM MENU and she constantly
questions her vision upon cinema.
(Română) Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities
(Română) Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale, Gary Ungar
(Română) Lize Johnston, Kevin Keppy, Kate Micucci, Essie Davis, F. Murray Abraham, Peter Weller, Ben Barnes, Tim Blake Nelson, Rupert Grint
(Română) United States, Mexico