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‘Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities’ review – a trick-or-treat mix of surprises, scares and wonders

‘Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities’ review – a trick-or-treat mix of surprises, scares and wonders
Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

The new Netflix anthology series is an eight-episode treat. The sheer variety of stories, combined with special effects and the immense talent that has brought every tale to life, means there should be something for everyone who loves dark fantasy and horror.

Something from the history books, a cabinet of curiosities wasn’t really a single piece of furniture, but a collection of “notable” objects, sometimes taking up entire rooms. These collections consisted of items from natural history and geology, religious relics, works of art and antiquities – some real and some fake. As well as serving as a reflection of socioeconomic status for its owner, it was also meant to convey the particular curiosities of their curators while entertaining and inspiring curiosity in others.

With that in mind, you can imagine the sorts of oddities we’re going to find in a Cabinet of Curiosities curated by the master of both fantasy and horror, Guillermo del Toro. Based on short stories from various authors, including HP Lovecraft, Henry Kuttner, Michael Shea and two original works by Del Toro himself, this eight-episode anthology series is helmed by different directors for each hour-long episode. And each filmmaker comes with distinguished pedigrees of their own.

At the beginning of each episode, like a horror version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Del Toro introduces the upcoming story in front of a cabinet of curiosities, picking out objects both mundane and fantastical to give us a brief insight into what we’re about to view. 

As important as the curiosities are, the directors of each episode are equally significant, and Del Toro reveals each man and woman as a small carved figure, underscoring their creative flair and contribution to what’s to come. Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities includes episodes directed by Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Vincenzo Natali (Splice, In The Tall Grass, Hannibal) and David Prior (The Empty Man).

Meanwhile, in front of the camera, there’s no shortage of talent either, with the likes of Ben Barnes, F Murray Abraham, Kate Micucci, David Hewlett, Essie Davis and Andrew Lincoln delivering top-notch work. This isn’t even mentioning other notable faces that make an appearance, like Rupert Grint, Sofia Boutella, Crispin Glover and Dan Stevens.

Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

As an anthology series, some episodes of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities will strongly resonate with you, or get under your skin, but inevitably they won’t all stick the landing. Such is the nature of a compilation format, and how it is affected by personal taste. 

That said, much like fellow dark anthologies Love, Death + Robots or Black Mirror, while some episodes won’t strike a chord, all of them are likely to provoke some level of reaction – even if it’s sheer disgust. 

A warning now that of all the episodes, the highly graphic Graveyard Rats and Pickman’s Model are likely to make you very queasy. Weirdly enough, the body horror-themed The Outside, about a woman unhappy with her appearance, isn’t as intense as you might expect.

As it stands, every horror fan is likely to have their favourite from Del Toro’s mix of curiosities. We don’t want to sway opinion preemptively, but singling out just three episodes really shows the diversity of the horror on-screen.

Catherine Hardwicke’s (Twilight) Dreams in the Witch House, based on a HP Lovecraft short story, is over-the-top supernatural fun (though it sadly strips out Lovecraft’s cosmic terror in favour of fairy tale elements). David Prior’s The Autopsy, based on a tale by Michael Shea, nails extraterrestrial body-snatching horror, proving how effectively sci-fi and horror can blend. Meanwhile, the season-capping The Murmuring shows Babadook director Kent out-Flanaganing The Haunting of Hill House’s Mike Flanagan. Kent’s take on a story by Del Toro himself is an emotionally powerful exploration of how psychological trauma and very real tragedy can find their mirror – and potential catharsis – through supernatural manifestation. The Murmuring ends Cabinet of Curiosities on a high note.

Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

Production still from ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’. Image: courtesy of Netflix

Despite how different each of these stories are, a common thread through all of the episodes is the God-tier special effects. Leading with a heavy emphasis on SFX make-up and practical effects, while including very little in the way of CGI, makes the visceral horror stand out even more. Nowadays, we are almost desensitised to computer-generated visuals, so practical effects are that much more effective. It’s far more realistic to have someone’s fingers visibly sink into rotting flesh, even if you know that flesh is made from silicone.

Another interesting thread that ties the episodes together is the fact that each tale is set in the past – evidently reflecting how cabinets of curiosity are products of a previous era. From the Gulf War all the way back to the early 20th century, every episode is exquisitely crafted for the decade in which it is set, including set and sound design, hair and make-up, and wardrobe.

One thing is for certain, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is a trick-or-treat mix of surprises, scares and wonders, with enough variety to appeal to all genre fans. DM/ML

This story was first published on Pfangirl.com

Cabinet Of Curiosities is available in South Africa on Netflix.

In case you missed it, also read The Midnight Club review – a nod to the era of Nineties adolescent horror

The Midnight Club review – a nod to the era of Nineties adolescent horror

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