Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities
Review by Roy Peak
Guillermo del Toro has been a bit hit and miss with me. His films always have an ambience to them, an atmosphere of dread and mystery, a most interesting color palette, unique stories, often with scenes of weird violence and grotesqueries unimaginable. Often the sets are a character as much as the actors. Pan's Labyrinth was all mood and horror mixed with a sweet fairy tale, but I figured out the "surprise" ending almost immediately. His Hellboy films have been nice to look at but I miss the fun and sense of embracing horror that creator Mike Mignola imbues his comics with. In The Shape of Water del Toro was able to seamlessly meld horror, dark fantasy, and romance into a one of a kind magical feature. (More like this, please.)
In the Netflix series Cabinet of Curiosities del Toro himself introduces these eight tales of horror in the manner of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, using an intricate cabinet as a set piece for each show. Most of these tales are lifted straight out of pulp horror fiction literature, which works well with del Toro's style.
The series starts out great with "Lot 36," an eerie tale of a storage unit. Aged Nazis, demons, a mysterious disappearance, writhing tentacles, and a doomed asshole of a protagonist, all come together in a nifty, tidy, horror short. At only 46 minutes in length, with hardly any filler, this one jumps right along. You just know that our protagonist is going to die right from the get go, but it's made deliciously squeamish and gruesome and so well deserved that this first offering knocks it right out of the park. If you've ever been lost in the maze of a multilevel storage unit late at night with bad lighting you'll feel the horror implicitly.
"Graveyard Rats" is only 37 minutes long and does fly by, but it also features a jerk of a protagonist so you know he's gonna get his just desserts. This one makes up for that with scary tunnels, hordes of hungry rats, a giant "rat queen," and supernatural zombies. This is the "pulpiest" of the episodes with a cliched, yet all-together horrible and frightening ending.
"The Autopsy" is body horrors unimaginable with its scenes of sliced up cadavers in a dark makeshift mortuary. Several of these episodes have scenes where a nameless horror invades someone’s body and uses it for their own nefarious needs, but this one is the most believable, therefore being the most frightful by far.
F. Murray Abraham does a fantastic job here with his character's fears and heroism. Well played, good sir.
"The Outside" is more body horror involving a face cream, a girl who only wants to fit in, taxidermy, and madness. A little long, probably could have been cut in half time-wise, yet a believable and nuanced performance by Kate Micucci more than makes up for any faults this tale has. (This one is based on the webcomic Some Other Animal's Meat by Emily Carroll, which is quite a bit different than the version here, look it up if you get the chance.)
We get not one, but two, episodes based on H.P. Lovecraft stories, the first of which is "Pickman's Model" which has Crispin Glover as the creepy artist, instead of the main protagonist. A miscasting for sure. Glover does great with the role he's been given, but oh how he would've chewed up the scenery as a man haunted by the demons in another man's art. The final scene is dreadfully creepy and dark, even when you know it's coming.
The second Lovecraft story is "Dreams in the Witch House," another gothic-based story with an evil witch, a freaky talking rat-man, and a man obsessed with rescuing his twin sister who passed onto the other side years ago.
Years ago I watched a film where the first hour and a half was nothing more than a woman driving down long windy tree-lined roads and in the final minutes she arrives at her destination and a monster kills her. End of film. Yawn. I knew I was in trouble when the first few minutes of "The Viewing" consisted of nothing more than a person in a car driving around in circles in a parking garage. Yawn. The driver meets three others who are all then picked up and transported to a mysterious billionaire's house where we are forced to endure three-quarters of an hour of drudgery and senseless talking that's supposed to convey a sense of mystery. More yawn. When the horror finally shows itself, it's rather unavailing. At least make nameless, dreadful, violent horror have somesense of logic. What we get is violent and freaky, but not really scary. I know they were trying to evoke a sense of cheap late-night seventies horror films with this one, but no, it's just dull. Peter Weller (who for me will always be Dr. Buckaroo Banzai) is well cast as an eccentric, egoist of a billionaire, but the rest of the cast could have been anybody.
"The Murmuring" tries to convey a ghost tale of catharsis and overcoming grief, but the story leading up to it has been played out too many times. It feels forced, despite the good acting.
The entire series looks fantastic. Perfect sets, great special effects, awesome makeup, and well done music throughout. You can tell they've spent their money on this. Thirty minutes per episode instead of nearly an hour would be nice, forcing the writers to get to the point, which is scaring folks. Setting a mood is one thing, drawing it out past the point of effectiveness is another. I'm hoping for a second season that's scarier, moodier, darker.
And if you watch with the subtitles on you get awesome descriptions such as (slimy footsteps), (wet footsteps), (distorted) "It’s probing me!", (soft squelching), (more squelching), (percussive tickling intensifies), and so on. How does one get a job writing these things?
Oh, and one more thing while we’re talking about a Netflix show: Netflix, could we do away with the previews that start all by themselves annoyingly? I'm still in decision mode when someone begins shooting or talking or the music swells up and this immediately makes me switch to another menu item just to shut them up while I make up my mind. Half the time I’m so aggravated that I switch over to Amazon or Hulu and I'm pretty sure that’s not what you want. I once stayed away from Netflix for over a month because I hadn’t the patience to put up with it. At least give us a "No Auto-Play' option in the settings, perhaps?
Roy Peak has played electric bass in more bands than he cares to remember for more years than he can remember. He wrote the theme song for the Utica, New York radio show "Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn" on WPNR-FM. His solo debut album, All Is Well, has been called "Loud, cacophonous, and beautiful by a truly unique artist." His short fiction has been published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and he writes music reviews for the King Tut Vintage Album Museum of Jacksonville. Roy writes music reviews for the Rocking Magpie among others.