One of the trickier aspects of getting into horror cinema is dealing with all the different kinds of horror available, and the fact that no one tells you what you’re in for. It makes sense, I guess: The unknown is one of horror’s best tools, and telling viewers what’s coming may detract from the desired effect. Still, on a streaming queue, it’s not always clear how Terrifier might scare you differently than, say, Day of the Dead.
With that in mind, it’s worth saying up front: Netflix’s new horror anthology, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, is eight episodes of horror short films interested in very different kinds of scares, but they’re all very human stories, and not terribly focused on keeping you awake all night. That doesn’t mean they’re a comfortable watch — in fact, the best thing about them is how they’re often built to warrant a hearty “No thanks!”
Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities follows the old-school horror anthology format of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Like with those classics, each episode is a different horror short film introduced by the host (del Toro himself) and crafted by different writers and directors. All week long, Netflix has been rolling out the episodes two at a time, unspooling the eight-episode season across four nights of double features.
The episodes in Cabinet of Curiosities vary wildly in tone and feel — its first two episodes, for example, pivot from socially conscious occult horror to a goofy EC Comics-esque creepfest full of rats. While del Toro opted not to direct any of the installments (two, however, are based on his stories), nearly all share one of the things that has become a hallmark of del Toro’s work: a deep love and appreciation for a good horror monster and old-school ick.
Cabinet of Curiosities features wonderfully gross, tangibly awful grotesquerie in most of its episodes: Cadavers are cut open, decay and rot on corpses is put together with the care brought to the finest French cuisine, and eldritch creatures contort and devour with regularity. It is rarely terrifying, but it is often uncomfortable. Hence: No thanks! It’s just what viewers will likely say when many of these episodes reach their climax.
Among the very best of these is “The Autopsy,” the third curiosity in the collection. Based on a short story of the same name by author Michael Shea, the episode stars F. Murray Abraham as a doctor called to perform autopsies on the victims of a strange mining collapse. As the doctor’s examination continues, he discovers that the miners found something strange and terrifying, and the episode turns into a stomach-churning battle of wits between the doctor and the entity he’s discovered.
Like with many of these episodes, part of the appeal in “The Autopsy” is in the filmmaker directing it. The short is directed by David Prior, most famous for making the dazzlingly unsettling cult film The Empty Man. While more conventional a story than his most famous work, “The Autopsy” plays in a similar psychological space, toying with the ideas of how much people can actually know about the world around them, where the arrogance of a person that believes they understand something is the beginning of their downfall.
Among the horror shorts assembled here, “The Autopsy” is perhaps the best combination of psychological and physical horror, as the mundanely awful work of taking apart what was once someone’s body is juxtaposed against the disassembling of someone’s mind.
There’s a hook like this in every episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, a slightly different take on something distinctly uncomfortable — “The Autopsy” premiered alongside “The Outside,” which wrestles with ideas of gender performance via the skincare industry, and the phenomenal capper “The Murmuring” has The Babadook director Jennifer Kent returning to familiar ground to tell a story about grief and reconciliation, with hardly any monsters at all.
While each story within Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is very different — with some episodes much better than others — it’s never out to terrify. Even when the series takes turns that may threaten revulsion (seriously, if you don’t like rats, you will squirm) it’s always mesmerizing enough to earn both a no thanks and a more please. It’s a horror anthology built to draw people in, not chase them away.