This article contains spoilers for “Graveyard Rats” in Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.
The use of practical effects is one of the best ways to distill terror into its purest form. Horror is a difficult genre to perfect, and using realistic effects and physical models to engulf the viewer into a believable world will help with the whole “scare people” thing that is the objective of the genre. The makers of “Graveyard Rats” from Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities on Netflix certainly agree.
The short film, which premiered today alongside fellow short film “Lot 36,” takes the audience on a bone-chilling thrill ride through the catacombs of an underground graveyard. The protagonist of the episode, a grave robber named Masson (David Hewlett), goes with his heart instead of his head when rats start to steal the corpse that possesses the prized jewelry he needs to sell. With barely anything more than a small gun and a flashlight, Masson goes for it all, not knowing what’s on the other side of this maze beneath him. The camera work in the show is phenomenal, making the viewer feel as equally claustrophobic as Masson does. But what makes the surrounding setting feel so tight, so unforgiving – like the walls of the underground are about to cave in on all of us no matter how hard we try to escape?
It’s the use of some of the best practical effects we’ve seen in quite some time on TV. The audience’s bullshit meter for phony-looking CGI has been fine-tuned after years of directors and movie-makers overdoing it with cheesy green screens and unrealistic images. The creative minds behind Graveyard Rats, headed by Guillermo del Toro, creature designer Guy Davis, and Spectral Motion, opted to mold their own vision here, using mostly physical puppets and models instead of digital alternatives. The payoff is very worthwhile especially when the “Queen Rat” is introduced halfway through the episode. This rodent is a gigantic nightmare of an animal, replete with dozens of razor-sharp teeth and strings of sticky saliva oozing from its jaw.
“The idea was alway to use a minimum of digital effects and make things as physical as possible,” Graveyard Rats director Vincenzo Natali (Splice, In the Tall Grass) tells Den of Geek. “The Queen Rat is ninety percent physical with a little bit of digital sweetening. It was the first time I worked with a puppet that truly worked. It could really articulate beautifully. When you’re working in TV you don’t have a lot of time and the takes are often just what they are. This one was fast. They rolled it in, it did its thing, and we had a great time with it.”
There’s a genuine love of realistic horror that seeps through every scene in this episode. It’s obvious when hearing from the people behind the camera that this passion is insightful and genuine. There’s something incredibly detail-oriented about their approach, but this is something we’ve come to expect from a project with Guillermo del Toro’s name and credentials attached to it. Natali also mentioned that his love for horror wasn’t the only important factor in the passion of the project shining through. Production designer Tamara Deverell and cinematographer Colin Hoult were instrumental in making the fiction feel like reality. This extended beyond just the effects for the rats, though. There’s a zombified corpse that makes a cameo later in the episode, and the realism of the monster is on par with the rest of the project.
“Doing a reanimated corpse, I needed to do it right,” Natali says “I wanted to take a slightly unconventional approach to it. The details, the patina, the pizzicotto of making a corpse is very important to me. And I think it’s for Guillermo, too. If you asked him I’m guessing one of the primary motivations of this was just to make creatures.”
Cabinet of Curiosities indeed includes at least jaw-dropping monster in each of its eight installments, but Graveyard Rats stands out due to its prevalence at the beginning of the series and for making one of the most common animals on the planet, a rat, into something grandiose and grotesque. Ironically, even though most of what you see are physical models throughout the episode, the use of real-life rats was kept to a bare minimum.
“We never filmed more than say three rats at a time,” Natali told us. “They were there for references as much as anything. There are some shots of rats early on where they’re just environmental and kind of hanging out where you’d have a few of them. But once you get to rats running over somebody or a carpet of rats then you are in the digital world for sure.”
Masson eventually succumbs to his imminent fate that the audience has been anticipating since the second he descended into the depths of this underground hellscape, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less jarring when it occurs. Masson thinks he sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s just a small hole the rats have chewed in one of the tombs. His escape has been thwarted by his arrogance. These tombs belong to the rats and the dead, and when the living tries to interfere, they get a justifiable fate.
Natali talked to us a little more about these themes that have permeated horror stories for centuries.
“I absolutely feel like the lineage of this film, not necessarily the story because it predates it, is EC Comics and wanting to pay homage to those kinds of stories where a character does something immoral and pays in the most hideous way for their crime.”
WIthout the use of practical effects and realism, the message of the story would get lost. The realistic models that were used so excellently throughout the episode make it so immersive when Masson meets his maker. Him interfering with objects and beings that are fleshed out with physical models makes it feel even more like he’s doing something very wrong, like he’s fiddling not only with a real gravesite, but also with the idea of calm that should preside over death.
Graveyard Rats is a story that will be instantly rewatchable both for fans of horror and those who want to feel a real chill from a show throughout the rest of spooky season.
Two episodes of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities are available to stream on Netflix now. Two new episodes will be added each day through Friday, Oct. 28.