The thing about anthology series is that they inevitably invite comparison. Why would you present me with several distinct stories if you didn’t want me to rank them all from worst to best? Though that just might a me thing.
In any case, new Netflix horror anthology Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities presents eight unconnected tales of terror for viewers to experience. Even the folks behind the series understand that the diversity of options presented means that audiences will prefer some to others.
“With anthologies, I think it just comes down to what your taste is,” Cabinet producer J. Miles Dale tells Den of Geek. “With this show I think there’s something for everybody – whether it’s a director’s vision, or the material, or the setting, or the actors, or the dialog, or the scares. Unlike a continuing series, you can do it in bite-sized pieces. If this one you didn’t love, the next one you probably will.”
Truth be told, there are some Cabinet of Curiosities episodes that we enjoy over others, enough that we are able to present our choices of all eight episodes ranked from least favorite to most favorite. Check out our choices below and chime in with your own in the comments!
8. Dreams in the Witch House
It’s tough to slot “Dreams in the Witch House” into the “worst” spot because A. Director Catherine Hardwicke was very pleasant to speak with and B. It’s not terrible by any stretch of the imagination – just unremarkable and overstuffed. One would have high hopes for any adaptation of horror maestro H.P. Lovecraft’s works but truth be told this 1933 short story is an awkward fit for a visual medium.
Episode writer Mika Watkins wisely expands lead character Walter Gilman’s (Rupert Grint) backstory to feature more personal and human motivations. But in the process it makes the story needlessly long and discursive. To this episode’s credit, however, the monster design is top notch – particularly that of undead witch Keziah Mason (featured above).
7. Lot 36
Maybe the incredible monster designs of Cabinet of Curiosities actually hold some episodes back. For, if there’s any Cabinet creature I would put up against Keziah Mason in terms of quality, it would be “Lot 36’s” tentacle-y possessed demon-woman Dottie. And yet, I consider these two installments to be comfortably the worst of the bunch.
Despite being among the shortest episodes, “Lot 36” still doesn’t have enough novel ideas to fill its runtime. Tim Blake Nelson effortlessly creates a fully lived-in character in the form of Nick Appleton (because Tim Blake Nelson rules) but the story doesn’t know what to do with him aside from kill him. At one point, Nick visits one potential seller, who advises him to visit another potential seller, who in turn brings in another potential seller. Lotta fat on that story-meat. But hey: Dottie is truly amazing.
6. Pickman’s Model
Say what you will about Crispin Glover, but he will absolutely go for it when presented with the opportunity to do an accent. Like “Dreams in the Witch House,” “Pickman’s Model” is another Lovecraft adaptation and as such is set in early 20th century New England. Glover responds with the most bone-chilling “pahk the cahr in Hahvahrd yaaaarhhddd” Boston patois you’ve ever heard.
Jokes about Glover’s accent aside, he’s not really the problem here. The issue with “Pickman’s Model” is its frustrating lack of ambiguity. Much of the episode works due to its lead character William Thurber’s (Ben Barnes) precipitous descent into madness. The end, however, indulges pure gory schlock – albeit pretty cool gory schlock.
5. The Murmuring
Upon first watch, “The Murmuring” would likely have been my choice for #7 or #8 on this list. With some time to reflect, however, I’ve come to better appreciate the low-key vibe it went for in contrast to the other, more explosive installments of Cabinet of Curiosities.
“The Murmuring” is nothing if not leisurely paced as a married couple of ornithologists head to a remote island to study the patterns of flocking birds, known as murmurs. Andrew Lincoln and Essie Davis are both superb as the two leads. And if this Jennifer Kent-directed hour were better able to capture some scares it would have been one of Cabinet‘s most successful outings. As it stands, it’s an admirable and intriguing failure.
4. Graveyard Rats
There’s a certain elegance to the title “Graveyard Rats.” This episode, based on a Henry Kuttner short story, promises graveyards and rats and then delivers on both. This is a lean, mean horror machine with a simple premise and an even simpler execution.
It doesn’t take much setup before Masson (David Hewlett) is down in the ground where he belongs, fighting off legions of highly intelligent rodents. While many of Cabinet of Curiosities‘ bleak episode endings eventually wear off their welcome, the truly macabre closing shot of this one is easily the series’ best.
3. The Outside
It’s probably fair to call “The Outside” the most “political” of all the Cabinet of Curiosities as it’s one of the very few that acknowledges complex social motivators and pressures as part of its horror mission. It’s not fair, however, to say that this Ana Lily Amirpour-directed installment is any more didactic or any less scary than the rest because of it.
Kate Micucci excels here as Stacey, a woman who confronts what she believes to be an uncomfortable truth: everybody just wants to be hot. With the help of the sleazy Alo Glo man (Dan Stevens) on her television, she goes about making her dreams of hotness a reality. The many twists and turns of “The Outside” work remarkably well and it all culminates in a truly enigmatic closing shot that forces the audience to question what even is a happy ending anyway.
2. The Viewing
How far can a sheer vibe take a capable, yet limited story? If “The Viewing” is any indication then the answer is “very, very far.” There isn’t much to this parable written by Panos Cosmatos (who also directs) and Aaron Stewart-Ahn. In it, a mysterious billionaire (played by RoboCop Peter Weller) invites some of the most interesting and intelligent people he can find to provide their feedback on a curious item he recently acquired. Naturally, the item generates horrors beyond imagining.
But none of that is of particular importance to “The Viewing.” What is important, is the vibe. Oh gods, that sweet, sweet vibe. Fine-tuning a thrilling house style first established in 2018 thriller Mandy, Cosmatos presents an unholy combination of sound, light, and color that absolutely enraptures the senses. Forget the Lynchian alien head Macguffin at its center, the subject of “The Viewing” could have very well been “The Viewing” itself.
1. The Autopsy
“The Autopsy” has just about everything you’d ever want out of a horror story: two old-heads teaming up to confront a mystery, a loquacious intergalactic threat, and oodles and oodles of moldering corpses. Based on a short story by Michael Shea, written by David S. Goyer, and directed by David Prior, “The Autopsy” is just good meat and potatoes horror done right.
F. Murray Abraham’s Dr. Carl Winters is a positively Stephen King-ian protagonist – a down-to-earth professional who turns out to be shockingly capable of confronting true evil. While Guillermo del Toro’s makeup, prosthetic, and VFX teams makes lovely monsters throughout the rest of Cabinet of Curiosities, their work here turning human bodies into piles of organs to be investigated and operated on is second-to-none. Complete with a satisfyingly bittersweet ending, this is the anthology’s best ride from beginning to end.
All eight episodes of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities are available to stream on Netflix now.