In recent years, the TV anthology has become something of a single-author format. From Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror to Noah Hawley’s Fargo to Mike White’s The White Lotus, anthologies have become the preferred delivery method for stories told by just one person. This makes Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, the imaginative, spooky, and surprisingly versatile episodic anthology that’s about to hit Netflix, an extra-fresh breath of fresh air.
Despite the famed director’s name in the title, the new series involves myriad voices, each of them unique. Del Toro serves as creator, curator, host, and occasional writer, but the series works as well as it does because he isn’t afraid to add other artists to his collection – and he chooses a talented bunch. The show’s eight-episode first season features stories from the likes of David Prior (The Empty Man), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Vincenzo Natali (Cube), Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Panos Cosmatos (Mandy), and more.
Cabinet of Curiosities is set to premiere with two episodes per day across several days, an old-school style of presentation that matches the format Del Toro seemingly aims to inspire with his series. The filmmaker appears for brief introductions to each episode, a la Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone or the eponymous host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. After that, we’re whisked away to one of eight singular stories, each of which is fascinating even as some are, as is always the case with anthologies, better than others.
Despite the strong filmmaking voices behind the camera, there are themes that run through Cabinet of Curiosities. Several stories are period pieces from the era of Spiritualism when science and reason collided with the otherworldly. Many, if not most, episodes contain an element of cosmic horror, a sense of awe that’s often coupled with existential dread. And for the most part, these are creature features, full of drippy, scratching, pulsating monsters that seem more misunderstood than malevolent.
These commonalities might make Cabinet of Curiosities sound like the kind of experiment that would get old, but it doesn’t. While a few similar tales blend together, the standouts are utterly unique. My personal favorite might be “The Outside,” the hour that Amirpour directed. Based on a story by the excellent horror comic author Emily Carroll, “The Outside” follows a strange, self-conscious woman (Kate Micucci) who longs to fit in with her glossy, divorced coworkers. Martin Starr plays her aw-shucks husband, who begins to question her when she starts becoming obsessed with a miraculous, overpriced lotion. “The Outside” isn’t just funny, relatable, and macabre, but it also possesses a unique visual style, full of alienating close-ups and garish costume choices.
“The Outside” isn’t the only curiosity with a streak of dark humor: Natali’s offering, “Graveyard Rats,” is a grotesque and hilarious wheel of fortune story about a grave robber that grows increasingly, wonderfully ludicrous before climaxing in a memorably disgusting way. That episode’s only downside is some less-than-stellar CGI, but luckily, not every episode relies on effects so much. “The Viewing,” a nerve-wracking story directed and co-written by Cosmatos, at first calls to mind classic bottle episodes of The Twilight Zone, like the tricky holiday outing, “Five Characters in Search of An Exit.” It soon goes wildly off the rails, though, and we get to witness a cast, including Peter Weller, Eric Andre, and Charlyne Yi, endure a trippily terrible night.
Not every episode is funny, either. Kent’s entry, “The Murmuring,” is the most naturalistic of the bunch, with The Babadook star Essie Davis and The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln playing ornithologists who begin a residence at a home that has a haunting history. The episode is beautiful and spare, communicating its sad story with the same assured sense of storytelling that made Kent’s first film a breakout. Meanwhile, Prior helms the most genuinely chilling entry, a freaky slow burn called “The Autopsy” that stars F. Murray Abraham and Glynn Turman.
While none of the season’s eight stories scared me in any lasting, leave-the-lights-on sense, they did present some horrifying imagery, mostly of the body horror variety. Skin sloughs off, eyes get gouged, heads explode, and people get cooked for dinner. The gore here is versatile, used in different ways by different filmmakers, and it always makes a strong impression. This gets to the root of what makes Cabinet of Curiosities such a success: it’s got weak spots, sure (the first episode, “Lot 36,” might be the show’s least impressive), but it’s never anything but ambitious. Unlike most middle-of-the-road horror anthologies, it never stoops low for a scare or a gross-out moment. Instead, it’s a consistent testament to its creators’ love of storytelling, horror, and, yes, curiosity.
Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities debuts on Netflix on October 25, 2022. Watch the series trailer here.