At the start of each episode of Netflix’s latest anthology horror series, Cabinet of curiosities by Guillermo Del Toro, the audience is greeted by the Oscar-winning director. Presenting each new tale in front of a veritable cabinet of curiosities, the Pan’s Labyrinth the filmmaker immediately evokes the two Alfred Hitchcock presents and that of Rod Serling The twilight zone. And comparisons are fair, if they are easily welcomed. After all, del Toro’s first foray into television sees him serve as host and tastemaker for a stellar roster of horror and thriller storytellers that remind us why this genre remains fertile ground for exploring the today’s most relevant issues.
But maybe we should pause and explain why del Toro chose “cabinet of curiosities” as the title and concept for the show. As he explains in the series’ opening episode (the “Lot 36” directed by Guillermo Navarro, written by Regina Corrado from an original story by del Toro): “In centuries past, when the world was full of mystery and travel was reserved for the very few, a new form of collecting was born. The cabinet of curiosities, which could be a building or an actual piece of furniture, housed all kinds of things. And related to each of his objects was a story.At the top of each episode, he opens the titular carved wooden cabinet and offers us an object that will prove crucial to those stories (a set of keys, say, or a remote control).
These opening interludes help elucidate how the series approaches its genre trappings. The cabinet of curiosities, after all, serves as much structural conceit as metaphor for the anthology’s set-up. Del Toro wants to remind us that scary stories can and do begin with the most mundane objects, but also that the very act of storytelling, the skill of such narrative flair, rests with the filmmakers who are at the heart of this anthology series. This is why each introduction places such objects next to the sculpted figurines of the directors at the controls of each episode.
Indeed, each installment, which includes directors like Panos Cosmatos (mandy), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook, The Nightingale) and Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Twilight), is, like the magnificent eponymous wooden piece of furniture, expertly crafted. Attention to detail in everything from thrilling soundscapes that evoke unearthed graves to meticulously art-directed spaces that are truly haunting, elevates these terrifying short tales of horror to timeless themes such as greed, pride, and conceit, while dredging up diabolical, takes on zombies, rat-kings, vengeful demons and, of course, the most gruesome villain you can think of: capitalism itself.
Any review of an anthology series, especially one as strong as this, is bound to play favorites. And while I can focus on one of the many standout episodes (actors Tim Blake Nelson and F. Murray Abraham, for example, make the entries they star in, “Lot 36” and “The Autopsy,” respectively, captivating performances feature that double as meditations on what we owe the dead), we’d be remiss if we didn’t single out the one we haven’t yet shaken off.
We’re talking about the Ana Lily Amir-directed installment “The Outside.” Written by Haley Z. Boston and based on a short story by comic book writer Emily Carroll, this horror-comedy about a young woman’s plagued insecurities in a nondescript wintery suburban neighborhood is a knockout. The ’80s Christmas episode stars Kate Micucci (best known as one half of musical comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates) as Stacey, a clumsy bank teller whose love of taxidermy, not to mention her sense of old-fashioned style, keeps her on the outings with her beautifully groomed colleagues.
As with every other episode, it’s best not to spoil the details of “The Outside,” but know that Micucci’s comedic sensibilities – as well as Dan Stevens’ penchant for playing such alluring oversized weirdos – are expertly deployed. here once Stacey decides her enhancement will come in the form of a beauty regimen that proves almost disastrously self-destructive…until it doesn’t. Just as she has proven with her film credits, Amirpour is one of the most exciting voices working in horror today. With “The Outside,” she manages to defamiliarize water fountain gossip and secret office Santas with such ease that you’ll never believe anything is scarier than a group of women wearing shoulder pads silently judging you. while aggressively flailing his arms with abandon. A dark, comedic fable about the impossible standards of beauty that women unnecessarily hold themselves to, Amirpour’s directorial offering here is, above all, a fantastic chance to see Micucci shine. The extended shot that closes the episode alone – which mocks and complicates an overly dark ending – is a piercing masterclass in how comedy and horror make perfect bedfellows.
Both an investigation into contemporary horror and an ode to the timelessness of its multiple concerns, Cabinet of curiosities by Guillermo Del Toro is a welcome addition to the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Just as he’s proven time and time again, the Oscar-winning director is as much a student as he is a master of horror, and here he once again lets audiences revel in his many possibilities with a slew of spellbinding and once too timely stories – and just in time for spooky season, no less.
Cabinet of curiosities by Guillermo Del Toro premieres October 25 on Netflix.
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