SERIES REVIEW – Guillermo del Toro’s horror anthology is at once mysterious and fascinating, at times horrifying and thrilling, with plenty of monsters and horrors. Still, somehow the stories don’t always manage to lead or conclude with enough uniqueness or punch. Interestingly, the series features three stars known from other fantasy and horror franchises, including Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter films, Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, and Sofia Boutella, who terrified Tom Cruise as the female lead in The Mummy.
“Eclecticism is a trend that mixes elements from different eras, styles and trends, rarely containing independent elements, and which brings its uniqueness to the selection. The term derives from the Greek word ἐκλεκτικός (eclectic), meaning ‘to select’, meaning ‘to choose the best’.”
Wikipedia’s definition of this stylistic direction could perhaps not be more fitting for Guillermo del Toro’s series, which is a highly atmospheric, excellent take on eight different stories, but none of them are overly original or really creepy – but overall, it’s quite entertaining.
A haunted theme park – “Guillermo del Toro presents”
The Autopsy, the third episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, opens with an impressively stylized sequence of images. First, a spider slices through its web, then stars twirl in the night sky, followed by a rock wall carved deep into a mine. This sequence subtly lays the groundwork for the interconnected worlds that the Netflix series explores: the natural, the cosmic and the man-made, each home to its own monsters.
The Hall of Horrors is like a haunted amusement park, as the eight episodes presenting separate stories, each helmed by a different director, reflect an eclectic range of tones and sensibilities. Each episode is introduced by Guillermo del Toro himself – in an Alfred Hitchcockian manner – who steps out of the darkness to deliver a monologue to the camera, in a manner that is genuinely entertaining in its serious seriousness. The similarities with Hitchcock in the style, looks and roles of the two directors in the film world are so striking that the reference to the age-old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” series was a high ball that obviously couldn’t be missed and I think it was a good way to execute the idea.
Not always original, but overall effective stories
Although Keith Thomas’s “Pickman’s Model” and Catherine Hardwicke’s episode “Dreams in the Witch’s House” (starring Rupert Grint) – both adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories – are all too familiar in their depictions of demons and ghosts, most of the episodes are impressively original, including The Dissection, in which a coroner (F. Murray Abraham) and a sheriff (Glynn Turman) discover a small-scale alien invasion; Vincenzo Natali’s episode The Graveyard Rats, which depicts the plight of an indebted grave robber (David Hewlett) with almost acerbic humour; and Guillermo Navarro’s “Lot 36”, which, while a little heavy-handed, still impressively ominous, evokes the atmosphere of an abandoned warehouse compound ravaged by a racist war veteran (Tim Blake Nelson).
Three directors who have made significant – albeit in some cases underrated – contributions to 21st-century horror are responsible for the outstanding episodes in the series, which stand out for their impressive sense of place and thoughtful social commentary. Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour and based on a short story by Emily Carroll, The Outside is set in a colourful, highly stylised suburb that suggests the feverish brokenness of middle-class American life. A severely frustrated, googly-eyed bank teller, Stacey (Katie Micucci), embarks on an expensive, rough skincare regimen – and, via television, begins a communion with a sleazy ad man (Dan Stevens) peddling the product in infomercials. Stacey becomes increasingly detached from reality, and more and more like her co-workers, who put vanity and pleasure above all else. This episode is a bizarre, funny and disturbing look at consumer society.
The Walking Dead star to star in adaptation of Del Toro novel
Based on del Toro’s novel, Jennifer Kent’s episode of The Murmuring generates similar intrigue, albeit with more seriousness. The story chronicles a birdwatching trip undertaken by ornithologists Nancy and Edgar (Essie Davis and The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln), who are reeling from a recent tragedy – and refuse to talk about it. The pair set up camp in an abandoned, deserted house, and we see them in beautiful but understated close-ups as they capture the sounds of countless birds soaring over the water. As the duo’s frustration and grief with each other comes to the surface, these images become a complex symbol of the tension between the freedom of flight and the irresistible bonds that hold flocks of birds and families together.
The most brutal body horror part: The Showcase
In contrast, the characters in Panos Cosmatos’ The Showcase are bound together not by blood or instinct but by the whims of one man: Lionel Lassiter (Peter Weller), an absurdly wealthy recluse who invites a selection of strangers into his home for a mind-blowing evening. Co-written by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn (co-writer of the Nicolas Cage horror thriller Mandy), the episode takes place largely on a round sofa, where Lionel and Zahra (Sofia Boutella, who starred in the latest adaptation of The Mummy), his doctor and confidante, help their guests with whisky, coke and philosophising.
Lionel’s home is filled with brutal nails like an alien ziggurat, drowned in a warm orange light almost as mesmerizing as the man’s confident baritone. Although much of the episode is confined to a single room, it feels spacious rather than cramped. Lionel’s probing questions about fulfilment and emptiness grippingly open up the psyche of his visitors.
Finally, we learn that Lionel is eager to show us what he calls “the object”. The party walks down a long corridor, enters another circular room, and sees an object placed on a pedestal – and electrifying chaos ensues. The object is a symbol of the Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities: a presence that exudes an alluring air of mystery, rough but energetic.
Ideal for Halloween
Some episodes of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities are more effective than others. Not so in Dreams in the Witch’s House, which, despite the performance of Rupert Grint, known from Harry Potter, is almost comic in its execution. The outside world exudes a kind of grotesque atmosphere, with a clever ending that is truly memorable. If the punchy ending is generally lacking, overall this is a suitably creepy and nightmarish anthology for fans of the sinister and supernatural and an ideal series for Halloween, the eight episodes of which are recommended to be watched in one sitting.