Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is waltzing arm and arm with Netflix into the twilight of 2022, reaching the end of the year to the sound of critical and commercial fanfare. Forcing tears from the audience of the London Film Festival with his adaptation of Pinocchio, two months before its online premiere on December 9th, del Toro has now conjured a carnival of terror in his anthology series Cabinet of Curiosities.
As a ringmaster of the terror, much like the eerie storyteller of the niche, CITV show Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids or Dr. Hill, the raconteur of the video game Until Dawn, del Toro shows up at the beginning of each episode like a playful, omniscient grim reaper. Like a giddy child, the director thrives in this environment, clearly cherishing the series he created alongside eight of the finest horror filmmakers of modern cinema.
Night one of Netflix’s week-long Halloween celebration sees two stories which envelop the theme of ‘Scavengers’, with the double-bill kicking off with Guillermo Navarro’s Lot 36. Helmed by the long-time collaborator of del Toro, who worked with the filmmaker as a cinematographer on 1993s Cronos and 2006s Pan’s Labyrinth, the episode is penned by one of the many writers of Deadwood, Regina Corrado.
Like the dark side of the reality TV show Storage Wars, the short story follows a bigoted former soldier, played by the Coen brother’s regular Tim Blake Nelson, who discovers a dark secret in a unit he recently won at auction. Finding a seance table with several neat compartments that house a stack of ancient texts, the soldiers discover will force him into a moral quandary which puts his life on the line.
As the first of del Toro’s eight curiosities, the show is a smart and simple introduction to the madness, with Nelson taking the straightforward story in a more intriguing direction. That said, Corrado’s screenplay is tight and ultimately fulfilling, cramming a decent amount of content into an hour of drama without creating something instantly forgettable or too eagerly stuffed with bloated concepts.
Speaking of which, the second curiosity of the first night of terrors is Vincenzo Natali’s Graveyard Rats, a grizzly short story based on the novel of the same name by author Henry Kuttner. Set in the muddy streets of rural Salem, Massachusetts, the film sees a cemetery caretaker (David Hewlett) turn grave robber to seek the jewellery of the dead no matter the harsh costs.
Coming from the director behind Cube and Splice, the film’s a predictably violent affair, featuring some neat monster design in the form of several hulking rats whose stink permeates through the TV, though, much like the aforementioned feature films, Graveyard Rats is all concept. Trying hard to staple two separate narratives together, despite the fact that they don’t fit, Natali’s film is a fun ride but ultimately falls apart under the weight of its own lofty ambitions.
Charming, despite its foibles, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is like sitting down around a warm campfire to hear a handful of ghostly tales with a master of horror at the helm. Whilst they may not access anything more profound, each episode is like the door behind a Halloween advent calendar, full of surprise, sweetness and passion for traditional terror.