“Lifeless images rendered in colorful goop.” – Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (2022)
I feel like I probably don’t need to explain why I was excited about Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (it’s always weird to me that his name is part of the title). Del Toro is one of my favorite contemporary directors and, more to the point, one whose sensibilities very often line up with my own. I love ambitious anthology horror series. This was a big deal for me.
And like any horror anthology series, it was hit and miss. I’d say the eight episodes that dropped on Netflix across four days were about 50/50 for me, but the good half were quite good, and even the ones I didn’t like as much were generally interesting. Of the eight episodes, I was most excited about “Graveyard Rats” going in, just because I love the story and think it would translate really well to film in the short form. And maybe it would, done another way, but this wasn’t it… at least for me. (I’m told there’s a black-and-white version available, and I’m very curious to check that out.)
A lot of other people seem to have loved it, so maybe my high hopes contributed to my disappointment. It’s certainly got a lot of critters in it, anyway. And that’s part of the thing with Cabinet of Curiosities; with the exception of Jennifer Kent’s “The Murmuring,” every episode has at least one or two monsters of some sort. And they’re usually quite good. “The Viewing” is another one I didn’t care for (not a Panos Cosmatos fan), but the monster in it was great.
So, which ones did I like? Well, I liked the first episode, “Lot 36,” and thought it started the series off on a strong footing, even if its lore was a little muddled and its monster relied perhaps too much on CGI. And I loved “Pickman’s Model” (that ghoul!), even though it doesn’t seem like most other folks dug it as much as me. Chalk that up to me liking the story, I guess, and also thinking it adapts well. But also, I mean, there are a lot of monsters and grotesques and such in this take on “Pickman’s Model,” and for striking imagery, it wins the show hands down, IMO. And I could listen to Crispin Glover’s Boston-ish accent all day long.
This is also reflective of something about this show, as a whole. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Masters of Horror. For some obvious reasons: both were pure anthology shows with each segment roughly an hour long and helmed by a different, generally well-established horror director. But there’s more to it than that. Like Masters of Horror, Cabinet of Curiosities has a certain amount of shared aesthetic from one episode to the next, even as the stories (and the directors) pull them in different directions.
In Cabinet of Curiosities you can lay that at least partly at the feet of showrunner Del Toro, most likely, but it also highlights some of the stars of the show, which are the people working behind the scenes. Guy Davis was a concept artist for pretty much the whole series, as I understand it, while Kevin McTurk puppeteered many of the monsters. And those are just two of the ones whose work I was already familiar with. For “Pickman’s Model,” for instance, you need examples of Pickman’s paintings, and in this case many of those were provided by Vincent Proce.
Besides the Masters of Horror of it all, there are some interesting decisions made in Cabinet of Curiosities. Of course, I am thrilled that GDT decided to go full Rod Serling and host the series himself. There’s also the fact that literally every episode is a period piece. Not all of them are the turn-of-the-century Victoriana of “Graveyard Rats” or “Pickman’s Model.” The first episode is set Stateside during the Gulf War. Panos Cosmatos’ segment is set in the ’70s. “The Murmuring” in the ’50s. And so on. But not one is set in the present, with the weird, indefinite period of Ana Lily Amirpour’s “The Outside” coming closest.
There are probably lots of reasons for this – I’ve already seen at least one person online trot out the “no cellphones” cliche – but what I find interesting about it is that it taps (perhaps accidentally) into the antiquarian bent that informs so many classic ghost stories but also the cabinets of curiosities for which the show is named. These episodes, then, become artifacts from another time; capturing, in at least some cases, perhaps an older style of horror.
I haven’t yet mentioned “The Autopsy,” which was, for a lot of viewers, their favorite episode. It was my second-favorite. But if I’m being entirely honest, the first half of “The Autopsy” is my favorite episode of the entire series. It’s only in its second half that it falters. And that’s not really a condemnation of the episode itself. I’m just less interested in where the story goes than in the journey it takes to get there. That was true of the original short story by Michael Shea, as well, if memory serves. That journey, though? So good.
So, all in all, was Cabinet of Curiosities a triumph? Yes and no. It was not a perfect series. Few series are. It had episodes that landed with resounding thuds for me, but I almost always found them interesting, even then. But it was an absolute triumph in at least one sense. We need more well-funded anthology horror in the world, especially when it brings in the talents of some of the best in the business, both in front of and behind the scenes.
And if anyone wants my opinions, I’ve got some suggestions for stories to adapt for season two…