‘Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities’ Ghoulishly Celebrates Anthology Horror

In classic “Twilight Zone” fashion, renowned director Guillermo del Toro introduces his new Netflix anthology series with some curious, fascinating history. He explains how “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities” takes its name from a practice more common a long time ago when traveling was only accessible to few people. “Cabinets of curiosities” would contain special items, all containing stories strange or eerie, or simply fascinating. It’s a perfect metaphor for an anthology series, where stories and tones can differ. Del Toro’s strength has always been horror and his collection of tales, directed by an array of notable names, try to hit every kind of spook there is. What binds them together is the Mexican auteur’s particular eye for detail, practical effects and morbid monstrosities. Like any short story collection, some segments may work better than others, but as a whole it’s an excellent addition to Netflix’s anthology roster.

Del Toro has never shied away from combining fantasy and horror with history and social commentary. His best works, such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” are as much about the ghosts of history as the actual ghouls. This first season of “Cabinet of Curiosities” begins with just a story in “Lot 36,” based on a tale penned by Del Toro, which is an obvious take on MAGA America. It’s directed by Guillermo Navarro, who got his start as Del Toro’s long-time cinematographer going back to the director’s debut, “Cronos.” Tim Blake Nelson gives a fittingly pitiful performance as Nick Appleton, a stridently anti-immigrant macho guy who purchases a storage locker but gets into a petty squabble over it with a middle-aged Latina named Emilia (Elpidia Carrillo). The supernatural angle comes in when Nick begins finding rare items in the locker that lead him to a book of demonic spells that can be worth quite a lot. You can guess he unleashes terrifying forces threatening to devour him.

Hidden terrors embodied by monsters in the del Toro mode, usually sporting tentacles and decayed faces, is a running theme in the early episodes of “Cabinet of Curiosities.” It is the del Toro touch, dripping with baroque set designs, that truly makes the show stand out since some of the stories are typical to anthologies by old pros like Stephen King. In the second episode, “Graveyard Rats,” David Hewlett is Masson, a 19th-century grave robber who digs up corpses with the hope of extracting their gold teeth. When he owes underworld types too much money, he gets desperate. A curious rat infestation also makes his job harder because the rodents devour corpses before he can get to the riches? How? In classic del Toro fashion, and in a style similar to “Lot 36,” certain places are hiding gruesome secrets. This story works better in the payoff, since in horror, anything involving greed has few surprises. There’s always a moral sense in a scary story that the terrors are also carrying a lesson we are wise to heed. It’s directed with some good creature suspense by Vincenzo Natali, who made “Cube,” “Splice” and the underrated Stephen King adaptation “In the Tall Grass.”

Overall “Cabinet of Curiosities” is promising to be a fun display of various directorial talents. del Toro has carefully chosen filmmakers not only for their fame or cult status, but their unique overall styles. Among selected directors are Panos Cosmatos, whose 2018 “Mandy” was a visually wild ride giving Nicolas Cage one of his best performances, and is allowed to indulge here in his vintage obsession with “The Viewing.” Ana Lily Amirpour, who has yet to top her Iranian vampire debut, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” jabs at the beauty industry with “The Outside” and Catherine Hardwicke, who we have to thank for “Twilight,” directs “Dreams in a Witch House,” which is set in the 1930s. Even Keith Thomas, who made the bland but well-scored Stephen King adaptation “Firestarter” earlier this year gets an episode.

Guillermo del Toro laid low for a bit after his Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water,” but he’s kept busy as a producer and despite releasing a grand noir last year, “Nightmare Alley,” now drops this well-made anthology. Styles will differ and pacing as well, which is also one of the risks when doing massive projects at Netflix, where one senses they mean it when claiming to let big directors do whatever they want. But it’s a fitting, more often than not entertaining buffet for the Halloween season. There’s thought being put into these tales, which at their best can work like morbid folk stories. You can enjoy “Cabinet of Curiosities” with del Toro’s trademark special effects and atmosphere, and then go recite the episodes around a campfire. 

Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities” season one streams Oct. 25 through Oct. 28 on Netflix.