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Del Toro’s lends virtuoso edge to horror anthology

Del Toro’s lends virtuoso edge to horror anthology

by Tómas Atli Einarsson 3 min. 03.11.2022
New Netflix series pays long-overdue respect to genre, culture critic Tom Einarsson says
The works of US author H.P. Lovecraft play a major role in the Netflix series
The works of US author H.P. Lovecraft play a major role in the Netflix series
Photo credit: Shutterstock

It’s fun to see horror nerds have fun. And fun is certainly what Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s anthology, Cabinet of Curiosities, has on offer. Some episodes may be better than others, but none are worse than middling.

The series premiered in stages in late October, releasing two episodes a day to build up to Halloween. Based partly on Del Toro’s own horror stories, and partly on classics of the genre, an overarching sense of passion pervades the series. 

Chief amongst the latter category - and perhaps best illustrating the trickiness of producing horror for the small screen – are two stories by H.P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model” and “Dreams in the Witchhouse”. These two represent either end of the Cabinet’s qualitative spectrum, with “Pickman’s Model” one of the strongest episode while “Dreams in the Witchhouse” makes for comparatively semi-engaging television at best.

Nevertheless these two episodes, along with Michael Shea’s “The Autopsy”, make Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (GDTCOC) a valid and well-executed exercise in genre revival, in which the other contemporary scripts can really only play second fiddle.

“Dreams in the Witchhouse” may count as one of the most Lovecraftian stories in the author’s catalogue of weird tales. A story of old Massachusetts, witches, delirious dreamscapes, with a healthy sprinkling of occult undertones, it may also be one of the hardest to put to the screen. The final product in Del Toro’s Cabinet is a fairly watered-down version of what Lovecraft offered his readers, to be sure, but also fulfils the role of being one of the more accessible mise-en-scenes of his opus - and a strong piece of horror, nonetheless.

At the other end of the GDTCOC’s spectrum resides “Pickman’s Model”, a story which captures Lovecraft’s nervous and uneasy style, while also indulging in the author’s touch of madness. An instant favourite for its depiction of slow-motion insanity setting in over the course of the tale (and the faithfully swanky 1920s atmosphere), Del Toro’s touch shines through in the episode’s attention to detail and emphasis on core, Lovecraftian story beats. 

Indeed, Del Toro has his fingerprints all over the anthology. Also detectable in his previous films (Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, to name a few), Del Toro plays with tongue-in-cheek hokiness; not cartoonish, but cartoon-ish. So when it comes to putting Lovecraft to film, a healthy dose of indulgence is a must. Take the source material too seriously and the episodes would be nothing but nervous-yet-atmospheric monologues. Take it too literally and they would all boil down to the protagonist being chased by some tentacled monster. 

Guillermo Del Toro walks the red carpet of the Award Ceremony during the 75th Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, September 8, 2018.
Guillermo Del Toro walks the red carpet of the Award Ceremony during the 75th Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, September 8, 2018.

Del Toro’s creative touch, in other words, lends his Cabinet of Curiosities a virtuoso’s edge. His enthusiasm for the source material and cinematic skill ensure that even the weakest episodes are a good, spooky watch. Better yet, it’s this touch that does the classic tales justice.

"The Autopsy”, is perhaps the best example. By far the strongest episode (and certainly the scariest), the episode amazes with its adherence to the source material down to the descriptions of characters, events and even rooms. Its translation onto film is uncannily similar to the imagery the story evokes, although for literature’s sake I will maintain that the short original is even more horrifying than its adaptation.

This dedication to classic horror fiction is of great benefit to the series, if a little detrimental to the other episodes authored by Del Toro and his team. Again, no individual episode can be said to be really weak, although the more ‘contemporary’ episodes pale a little in contrast to the literary ones. “Lot 36”, based on a story by Del Toro, is decent, if a little one-dimensional and not nearly as narratively engaging “Graveyard Rats”, the episode immediately succeeding it and based on Henry Kuttner’s 1936 tale of the same name. 

The original scripts, much more amenable to TV-adaptation, can only play second fiddle to the faithfully-reproduced stories based on celebrated classics of the genre. But in all fairness, it’s a tall ask to write something comparable to “Pickman’s Model” or “The Autopsy”. Yet Del Toro never dips into horror film awfulness. If anything, it should be celebrated for being one of the first series truly dedicated to the genre’s creepy roots.

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