Guillermo del Toro's 'Cabinet of Curiosities' Grounds Its Ghost Stories in Real-Life Horrors

Created by Guillermo del Toro

Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Elpidia Carrillo, David Hewlett, F. Murray Abraham, Glynn Turman, Luke Roberts, Kate Micucci, Martin Starr, Ben Barnes, Crispin Glover, Rupert Grint, Peter Weller, Eric Andre, Charlyne Yi, Essie Davis, Andrew Lincoln

Photo courtesy of Netflix

BY Rachel HoPublished Oct 26, 2022

Centuries ago, when only a handful of individuals set sail around the world, explorers and imposters alike would display their treasures for the curious to marvel over in "cabinets" (the term originally describing a room, not a piece of furniture). Peculiar pieces of natural history, antiquities, artwork and religious relics would be carefully curated in what would become the precursor to modern-day museums. 

Cabinets of curiosities began to lose their influence in the early 18th century. Today, the term is often used in literature and media to represent a collection of extraordinary ideas and stories. In the case of Guillermo del Toro, he uses it to present this anthology of eight unique horror tales, just in time to end spooky season.

One of my favourite touches in the series is a callback to Alfred Hitchcock's own anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Similar to the legendary director, del Toro appears from the shadows prior to each episode and delivers a brief monologue about the story to come. An actual cabinet is rolled out before Episode 1 ("Lot 36"), and, throughout the series, del Toro opens a different panel or drawer, presenting an item related to the upcoming instalment and a small figurine to represent the director of that episode. 

While some episodes share common themes, each story stands alone with no common characters or locations tying them together. Across the show, though, is the through-line that del Toro describes as realities hidden beneath our normal world, which is explored in several ways. In addition to the common horror trope of monsters and gateways to fantastical worlds lurking in alleyways and sewers, Cabinet of Curiosities examines things that only exist in the mind. It's of no surprise to anyone familiar with del Toro that stories curated by him are brilliant in their nuance and intrigue.

Although del Toro doesn't direct any of the episodes, two of them ("Lot 36" and "The Murmuring") are based on original stories by him. Each episode is directed by a different filmmaker, resulting in a cracking lineup of directors hand-picked by del Toro himself, including, Jennifer Kent, Panos Cosmatos, Guillermo Navarro and Canadian Vincenzo Natali. There is no set style or tone across the eight episodes; instead, each director puts their own unique accent on their tale, creating a wonderful tapestry of campfire horror stories.

While there are stronger episodes than others, one constant is the striking production value of the entire series. The attention to detail and care taken to bring monsters and otherworldly landscapes to life is truly incredible. Episode 3, "The Autopsy" (directed by David Prior), is particularly impressive in this regard, with organs and surgical incisions presented with a level of realism that will surely make audiences stir. 

Along with "The Autopsy," other personal favourite episodes are "Graveyard Rats" (directed by Natali) and "The Viewing" (directed by Cosmatos). The latter is a science fiction-tinged episode that is very true to Cosmatos's style, and also includes great performances by Eric Andre and Charlyne Yi — a duo I didn't know I needed but now demand a series and/or movie from. 

The one episode that stands out to me those most in the series, though, is the last chapter, "The Murmuring." Directed by Kent (the mind behind 2014's incredible The Babadook) and starring Essie Davis and Andrew Lincoln, "The Murmuring" is unlike anything else in Cabinet of Curiosities. The episode centres on two married ornithologists (bird specialists, to the layperson), Nancy and Edgar Bradley (Davis and Lincoln, respectively), who travel to Nova Scotia to study the flight patterns of a particular bird. During their stay, they stay in a remote area in an old house filled with beautiful and ornate furnishings. Throughout their time there, the house's haunted history begins to reveal itself to Nancy alone. As Edgar attempts to quell his wife's concerns, their own grievances and marital struggles come to the surface, as it is revealed that Nancy's mind has been a haunted house holding her captive for some time.

"The Murmuring" is the only episode not to include a monster. It has a gentler and more meditative piece in contrast to the scares and thrills of the other chapters, although "The Murmuring" still does include a pretty frightening sequence towards the end; it is perfectly placed as a finale episode. The story, also written by Kent, exemplifies the true trademark of horror: the scariest stories are ones that surround real feelings of grief and sadness that nag on the soul. It brings together the entire series in a grounded manner that beautifully dispels the extraordinary nature of ghost stories.

Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed when I learned that del Toro wouldn't be directing any episodes of Cabinet of Curiosities, but I welcome being proven wrong in this case. Del Toro brought together a great group of storytellers and curated arresting tales of terror, revulsion and consternation to create a well-crafted anthology series that will delight horror heads and intrigue the uninitiated all the same.

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