At the start of every episode of Netflix’s latest anthology horror series, Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, audiences are greeted by the Oscar-winning director. Introducing each new tale in front of an actual cabinet of curiosities, the Pan’s Labyrinth filmmaker immediately evokes both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. And the comparisons are apt, if readily welcomed. After all, del Toro’s first foray into television finds him playing host and tastemaker to a stellar roster of horror and thriller storytellers who remind us why this genre remains fertile ground for exploring today’s most relevant issues.
But maybe we should pause and explain why del Toro picked the “cabinet of curiosities” as both title and concept for the show. As he explains in the series’ opening episode (the Guillermo Navarro-directed “Lot 36,” written by Regina Corrado from an original del Toro story): “In centuries past, when the world was full of mystery and traveling was reserved for the very few, a new form of collection was born.” The cabinet of curiosities, which could be a building or an actual piece of furniture, housed any and all sorts of things. And tied to every one of its objects was a story. At the top of every installment, he opens up the titular wood-carved cabinet and offers us an object that will prove crucial to these stories (a set of keys, say, or a remote control).
These opening interludes help elucidate the way the series approaches its genre trappings. The cabinet of curiosities, after all, serves as much as a structural conceit as a metaphor for the anthology setup. Del Toro wants to remind us that scary stories can and do begin with the most mundane of objects—but also that the very act of storytelling, the craftsmanship of such narrative flair, lies on the filmmakers are the heart of this anthology series. It’s why every introduction places such objects next to carved figurines of the directors helming each episode.
Indeed, each installment, which boasts directors like Panos Cosmatos (Mandy), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook, The Nightingale), and Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Twilight), is, like the beautiful eponymous wooden cabinet, expertly crafted. The attention to detail in everything from thrill-inducing soundscapes that conjure dug-up graves to meticulously art-directed spaces that are truly haunting elevates these terrifying short horror tales about such timeless themes as greed, pride, and vanity, all while dredging up devilish takes on zombies, rat kings, vengeful demons, and, of course, the most horrific villain one can think of: capitalism itself.
Any review of an anthology series—especially one as strong as this one—is bound to play favorites. And while I could focus on any one of the many standout episodes (actors Tim Blake Nelson and F. Murray Abraham, for example, make the entries they star in, “Lot 36” and “The Autopsy,” respectively, gripping performance showcases that double as meditations on what we owe the dead), we’d be remiss if we didn’t single out the one we’ve yet to shake off.
We’re talking about the Ana Lily Amirpour-directed installment “The Outside.” Written by Haley Z. Boston and based on a short story by comics author Emily Carroll, this horror-comedy take on the preyed insecurities of a young woman in a wintry nondescript suburban neighborhood is a knockout. The ’80s Christmas-set episode stars Kate Micucci (best known as one half of the musical comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates) as Stacey, an awkward bank teller whose love of taxidermy, not to mention her unfashionable sense of style, keeps her on the outs with her beautifully coiffed colleagues.
As with every other episode, the specifics of “The Outside” are best left unspoiled, but know that Micucci’s comedic sensibilities—as well as Dan Stevens’ penchant for playing outsized if alluring weirdos—are expertly deployed here once Stacey decides her betterment shall come in the shape of a beauty regimen that proves almost disastrously self-destructive … until it’s not. Just as she’s proven with her filmmaking credits, Amirpour is one of the most exciting voices working in horror today. With “The Outside” she manages to defamiliarize water-cooler gossip and office secret Santas with such skillful ease you’ll never believe anything is scarier than a gaggle of shoulder-pad-wearing women silently judging you while aggressively lotioning their arms with abandon. A darkly comedic fable about the impossible beauty standards women needlessly hold each other to, Amirpour’s directorial offering here is, above anything else, a fantastic chance to see Micucci shine. The extended shot that closes out the episode alone—which mocks and complicates an all-too-bleak ending—is a transfixing master class in the way comedy and horror make for perfect bedfellows.
As both a survey of contemporary horror and an ode to the timeless nature of its many concerns, Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities is a welcome addition to the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Just as he’s proven time and time again, the Oscar-winning director is just as much a student as a master of horror, and here he is once more allowing audiences to revel in its many possibilities with a slew of entrancing and an times all too timely stories—and just in time for spooky season, no less.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities premieres October 25 on Netflix.