The horror anthology is thriving in 2022. From the tech-dystopia Twilight Zone that is Black Mirror to the V/H/S franchise’s high-concept shorts compilations to Shudder’s feature-length Horror Noire, which showcases the work of Black filmmakers, streaming platforms have become the virtual campfires where viewers gather to gorge on scary stories. Still, it’s not every Halloween that the subgenre attracts a creator as prestigious as Guillermo del Toro.
Rolling out on Netflix over four consecutive days, beginning Oct. 25, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is an episodic anthology conceived, curated, and hosted by the Shape of Water Oscar winner. Tied together by a thin thematic thread—”that there is another reality underneath the one that we know,” according to Del Toro—the eight hour-long tales go hard on the filmmaker’s well-documented obsessions: elaborate monsters, vividly human characters, H.P. Lovecraft. (Both episodes dropping on Oct. 27, “Pickman’s Model” and “Dreams in the Witch House,” are based on short stories by the early-20th-century father of cosmic horror.)
Lovecraft is far from the only boldface name in the Cabinet. On top of contributing two of his own stories for adaptation, Del Toro recruited directors ranging from genre stalwarts like Catherine Hardwicke and Vincenzo Natali to indie-horror sensations like Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), and Panos Cosmatos (Mandy). The cast is equally notable; Tim Blake Nelson, F. Murray Abraham, Crispin Glover, Dan Stevens, Charlyne Yi, Glynn Turman, Kate Micucci, Eric André, Rupert Grint, and Rings of Power breakout Ismael Cruz Córdova are only the beginning. Thanks, perhaps, to Del Toro’s famously exacting aesthetic standards, the production values are unusually high.
All in all, it’s a solid collection. A few episodes are skippable; “Lot 36” undermines Nelson’s stellar performance with a preaching-to-the-choir political message, and the combination of a plodding, dated Lovecraft story and Grint’s terrible Boston accent make Hardwicke’s “Dreams in the Witch House” the weakest of the bunch. But none are egregiously incompetent—a rare feat in the horror-anthology canon—and most remain pretty entertaining even when they feel a tad derivative. The straight-up scariest installment is probably “The Autopsy,” a bloody, cerebral riff on the alien-autopsy trope that’s scripted by David S. Goyer (The Sandman, Foundation), directed by David Prior (The Empty Man), based on a Hugo- and Nebula-winning story by Michael Shea, and stars a magnificently game Abraham as I, at least, had never seen him before.
For me, however, the real standouts are the two episodes that most successfully immerse viewers in strange, unique worlds that are all their own: “The Outside,” which hits Netflix on Oct. 26, and “The Viewing,” out Oct. 28.
It’s hard to imagine a director more perfectly suited than Amirpour, who’s known for her stylish, feminist-minded genre spectacles, to bring Emily Carroll’s web comic “Some Other Animal’s Meat” to the small screen. Her kitschy, ’80s-set adaptation casts Micucci as Stacey, a mousy, awkward bank teller who’s desperate to make friends with a clique of impossibly glamorous (read: excessively hairsprayed and intimidatingly shoulder-padded) women at work. But when her shot at popularity comes—an invitation to their exclusive Secret Santa party—she blows it by not-so-secretly giving the queen bee homemade taxidermy. Stacey’s parting gift is a tube of expensive lotion that makes all the other women glow. For her, the result is an angry red rash.
What begins as a cringe comedy escalates into a cringe body-horror-comedy that playfully satirizes the beauty industry and women’s cruelty to women. Amirpour clearly understands that the story’s feminist critique is not exactly mind-blowing, so she elevates the material by having a total blast with it. The production design is a hoot; the party house radiates bright-white light, and lotion oozes out of its tube like it’s got someplace to go. The cinematography can be gloriously demented, all claustrophobic closeups and disorienting angles. And the three central performances, from Stevens as a mesmerizing infomercial pitchman to Silicon Valley alum and Freaks and Geeks legend Martin Starr as Stacey’s baffled husband, are masterclasses in camp.
An eccentric rich person summons a handful of specially selected guests to their lavish home, with a hidden agenda. Who could resist that classic mystery premise? But “The Viewing” isn’t House on Haunted Hill or Clue or And Then There Were None. It’s a deeply bizarre, undeniably cool hour of television from Cosmatos—an Italian-Canadian horror auteur whose trippy, hypnotic films have made him a cult favorite—and his Mandy co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn.
The year is 1979. The setting is an isolated, Brutalist compound called the Sandpiper Club, whose retro-futuristic decor and orange-hued lighting are straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the distinguished guests ushered in for what they’ve only been told is a “viewing” are a musician (André), an astrophysicist (Yi), a writer (Steve Agee), and a seer (Michael Therriault). Their host, Lionel Lassiter (Peter Weller), is a reclusive collector and connoisseur who’s eager to share with them his rare whiskeys, bespoke drug cocktails mixed by his personal prescriber (Sofia Boutella), and electronic music he commissioned specifically for this occasion. “I collect beyond the known,” Lionel explains, and he isn’t kidding. The slowest of burns, “The Viewing”—which Cosmatos has said was inspired by Scooby-Doo—is more about mood than plot. That being said, the denouement is bonkers, and the final shot might just break your brain.
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