This article contains spoilers for Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities “The Autopsy”
One of the horror genre’s greatest tools is the fear humans have of examining their own bodies. We constantly hear about what makes us tick, we know all of the organs instrumental to our survival, but to see them raw, unfiltered, and treated with nonchalance is jarring.
In “The Autopsy,” one of the best episodes of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, the human body is nothing but a test subject. The hour hits all of the right notes with bodily fear, and it sticks the landing with a final 15 minutes that takes gore to a level very much not for the faint of heart. If you love seeing sharp objects ripping apart delicate flesh, this is the right type of film for you.
The Autopsy starts with some necessary exposition, albeit a narrative that takes a little too long to hit its stride if you’re somebody who is impatient and waiting for their first big shock of the viewing experience (this writer is raising both hands here). Like any good TV episode, a slow-burn style is devastating and beautiful if done with the right amount of preparation and with the necessary payoff to warrant the crawling pace.
The writers first introduce us to the two main characters of the story played by F. Murray Abraham and Glynn Turman. The former, Carl, is a medical examiner for an insurance claims company who is called to aid by his policeman friend, portrayed by the latter. Both men are trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious deaths that took place in a local mine, where it’s hinted that an ambiguous and evil entity might be in the mix. The setting and the idea for the basis of the plot are both heavily reliant on a small-town feel and the eerie colors of the area. This gets us enticed for where everything is headed and anticipating when the scariness will arrive at our doorstep.
About halfway through the film, Carl is introduced to all of the bodies he’s going to examine, and we are treated to a real-life game of Operation. The tools come out, and the fun begins. The investigator starts prying open these corpses and the camera never shies away from displaying all of the authentic human insides in all of their glory. Lungs, rib cages, hearts, and more are shown up close and personal. The investigator wants to see the aftermath of the mine explosion on these organs, but the audience starts to get the feeling that this assault on the remains of the dead is going to mean something much more.
The tension is enough to get the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up. In fact, this is an effect that literally happens to Carl when he starts hearing voices from the back of the room. The alien creature that was hinted at earlier in the episode is starting to insert himself into the action, and his verbal and physical conflict with the investigator is a highlight of the show heightened by the facial expressions and tone of the protagonist. As their conflict reaches a climax, Carl is forced to start mutilating himself to take control of his destiny.
J. Miles Dale, the producer of Cabinet of Curiosities, talked to Den of Geek about how some of the gory details of the encounter were even enough to make him bat an eye or two. When the material scares the producers, you know you’re watching something quite petrifying.
“Stabbing an exacto knife into your eyes and ears is about as cringey as it gets. I still wince at that one frankly. And I’ve seen it 25 times,” Dale says.
Self-harm is a disgusting act to have to watch on TV, especially in the barbaric way it is depicted in The Autopsy. Knives and human body parts go together like oil and water. Cramming blades into flesh, eyes, and brains is vomit-inducing, especially when done with the meticulous attention to detail and practical effects that are used throughout the Cabinet of Curiosities. The show does end on at least a somewhat positive note, as Carl is able to get his message about his research in the lab to the police officer by writing on himself with his very own bodily fluids.
“You can’t imagine how much time we spent on the physics of having F. Murray tied up but still able to take his blood and draw on his chest,” Dale says.
It makes it feel almost immoral to see the human body used in this way throughout the episode, a conduit for both the investigator’s research and the evil alien’s search for a hospitable host. This is what the best horror is all about though — getting us up close with the things that make us cringe about our own existence, and giving us a disturbing reminder that all we are is a bunch of random tissue and osseous matter put together in imperfect harmony, just waiting to be ripped apart by cold metal or a depraved soul.
Four episodes of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities are available to stream on Netflix now. Two new episodes will premiere each day through Friday, Oct. 28.