Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities Review: Effortlessly generates curiosity but struggles to hold your attention
The series uses a cabinet full of curious objects as a refreshing narrative tool, yet fails to leverage the full potential of its format by not pushing the boundaries
Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities is an eight-episode anthology series that refracts the many shades of horror like a macabre prism. The format of the show is predicated on the foundations laid by Rod Sterling’s classic anthology series The Twilight Zone(1959). While The Twilight Zone explores a multitude of themes like sci-fi, drama, horror, fantasy, and superstition, Cabinet of Curiosities bounds itself within the confines of the horror genre. The intention of the series to profess its love for the genre is apparent in every episode. However, the series tends to over-indulge in the established tropes and stereotypes of the genre which makes it seem stale and disposable.
Showrunner: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Kate Micucci, Tim Nelson, Ben Barnes, Crispin Glover, Rupert Grint, Peter Weller, Eric André
Streaming platform: Netflix
Guillermo del Toro emerges from the darkness and sets up the story at the beginning of every episode - excitement mounts as he masterfully verbalizes the central intrigue of each episode and then goes on to pull out an object that represents said episode along with a miniature figurine of the episode's director out of an ornate cabinet and places it on the table. With such a compelling intro, the series wonderfully sets up every episode and pulls us in. No matter how disappointed you were with an episode, the intro alone revives your enthusiasm for the next one. But almost every episode consistently goes through a progressive decline, to an almost arithmetic degree, that ends with a lukewarm and sometimes abrupt climax.
Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities is more preoccupied with building atmosphere than with telling a compelling story. The writing seems to suffer with translating the earnestness it has for worldbuilding to its characters. With masterful artwork, creature design, and practical effects, the lurid display of the unknown is wonderful to behold but the characters set opposite the terror on display rarely connect with us. While the characters do not lack depth and complexity, the way they react to the unknown is often annoyingly predictable.
There are some exceptions to these shortcomings. Episodes 2 and 3 (The Autopsy, Graveyard Rats), excel in making us feel the terror of the characters and leave us with lingering dread at the thought of what transpired on screen. Episodes 5 and 6 (Pickman's Model, Dreams in the Witch House) are based on short stories by acclaimed horror writer HP Lovecraft. While the episodes do offer a well-rounded story and believable characters, it suffers from over-indulgent filmmaking that tests our patience rather than our pulse for terror.
The attempt to weave a series with a narrative tool like a cabinet full of curious objects, that stands vividly outside of the stories and directly communicates with us, is refreshing and is the kind of inventiveness television could use more of. But the series ultimately fails to leverage the full potential of its format by not pushing the boundaries.
All the stories seem to not fully believe in the world that they are portraying. The only episode that seems to benefit from this passive approach to the genre is the seventh one titled The Viewing. There are some truly absurd moments in the episode that clearly tells us that the makers are having fun with the premise. In the episode, a mysterious billionaire invites a random assortment of notable personalities from different fields. Each of them starts sharing their life story and there comes a moment when the billionaire points to his henchman and tells everyone that he has the best story out of all of them but when he tries to speak up the billionaire abruptly shifts the topic without a care, the camera then cuts to the stoic henchman and we see a single tear rolling down his cheek, we never get to hear the henchman's backstory. The episode, directed by Mandy-fame Panos Cosmatos, is peppered with inanely absurd moments like these. While I enjoyed the absurdity, you could understand why it would grate someone who went in expecting a straightforward horror episode.
Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities provides precisely what it promised and nothing more. It generates enough curiosity and incites interest but is it truly enough to make us dig deeper into the closet? We might never find an answer until the second season drops and we linger over the play button trying to decide whether to watch it or not.