Episodic anthologies in the entertainment age of “content” are a tricky proposition. Crafting unique and compelling narratives is a challenge unto itself, made all the more difficult when creators have to start from scratch every episode… a notion that bucks against modern audiences’ inclination toward serialized stories. If viewers aren’t watching a movie, they want their favorite characters to keep them company for days and days (if not weeks and months). Merely making each episode longer isn’t the answer either, as hourlong anthologies have proven especially hit-or-miss. Where 30-minute entries (like many in “Room 104” and “Roar”) can be quick and cutting, a doubled runtime can result in bloat, banality, or both. (Not to mention, the business of Hollywood tends to work against anthology series. If a company can make more money by taking a 60-minute story, adding 20 minutes, and calling it a movie — where it can rake in box office, VOD sales, and more, before spawning sequels, prequels, and entire universes — why would they ever waste the best ideas as a small part of an anthology show?)
Sure, there are exceptions to the rule. “Black Mirror” became a streaming sensation (albeit after being developed outside of L.A.’s studio system), and “The Twilight Zone” remains the format’s gold standard (released back when appointment TV was still a thing), which is why fresh, earnest attempts to revitalize the episodic anthology can still spark high hopes. Such is the case with “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.” Hosted by the affable Oscar winner, Netflix’s new series is made up of eight episodes telling eight standalone stories from eight different directors. They all fit somewhere within the wide breadth of horror, and a number of shared themes emerge throughout.
But like so many anthologies before it, del Toro’s “Cabinet” is too inconsistent in its attempts to pique our interest. Half the episodes are outright duds, as predictable in their plots as their poor attempts at provocation. Only a few feel as prying and imaginative as del Toro himself, but the best they can do is prop up a series that lands somewhere between deflating and infuriating. For such an accomplished creative team, some of these ideas simply aren’t up to snuff.
David Lee / Netflix
That said, “Mandy” director Panos Cosmatos came to play. Episode 7, ‘The Viewing,” is best experienced sans excessive teasing, but the cast + creator combo should have viewers skipping ahead to watch the penultimate entry first. Eric André, Charlyne Yi, Steve Agee, and Michael Therriault all play various professionals at the top of their respective fields who are whisked away for a mysterious evening at a mega-rich dude’s mansion. Peter Weller plays the wealthy man with an ambiguous motive, while Sofia Boutella serves as his smiling, largely silent assistant.
Hardcore horror fans may be turned off by an entry that’s heavy on vibes and light on frights, but it’s silly to be upset when the vibes are this striking. Pulsing synth music underscores the increasingly eerie events. Hazy atmospherics accentuate the night’s unknowable mystique (and provide a tangible presence to an evening of steady drug use). Even a dialed-down André brings enlivening animated energy, and Yi makes for an excellent audience surrogate — cautious yet curious, smart yet in the dark, and relatable from start to finish.
The next episode provides a nice counterbalance, as “The Babadook’s” Jennifer Kent helms a classic haunted house story about a pair of married birdwatchers struggling to overcome their recent tragedy. When the couple heads to a remote location for work, their provided lodging dredges up the past to confront the present — via bumps in the night, urban legends, and shrieking ghosts. Kent’s elegant compositions pair nicely with warm performances from Essie Davis and Andrew Lincoln. Whether she’s capturing murmurations of birds soaring through the sky or static shots of an aging home, there’s a tenderness to each scene that elevates a story of understanding, not fear. Again, audiences hoping to be terrified may be disappointed, but taken on its own terms, “The Murmuring” is a lovely, moving tale.
Ken Woroner / Netflix
For visceral shivers, one would have to head back to the beginning — not Guillermo Navarro’s maddeningly simplistic (yet mercifully short) “Lot 36” (Episode 1), but Vincenzo Natali’s nasty creature feature, “Graveyard Rats” (Episode 2). Though I’ll never watch it again — Natali takes his central analogy to sickening extremes — the episode holds together as a dark, twisted, deep dive into one man’s depraved quest to survive. Episode 3, “The Autopsy,” from director David Prior (written by David S. Goyer from Michael Shea’s short story), also utilizes models, prosthetics, and sounds to create a compellingly creepy investigation. (Across all episodes, “Cabinet of Curiosities” is consistently excellent in its use of practical effects.) F. Murray Abraham and Glynn Turman star as a pathologist and sheriff, respectively, working together to solve a confounding case involving an explosion in a coal mine. Where it goes from there is entirely unexpected, and those able to tune in to its super weird frequency will likely find it among their favorite entries.
Sadly, that’s about as deep as “Cabinet of Curiosities” gets. The colorful, off-kilter ambiance maintained in Ana Lily Amirpour’s “The Outside” can’t make up for its familiar, dated message (not to mention its inexcusable length). Crispin Glover’s accent — an English Leprechaun maybe?! — is all I can remember from “Pickman’s Model,” and not for the right reasons. “Dreams in the Witch House” has moments of pleasing frivolity, but it never works as more than a breather from the more ghastly, self-serious slogs.
The same can be said of the series: When four hours of an eight-hour season range from draining to dreadful, and the other four vary from passable to pretty good, what you’re left with is an average TV experience, at best. In today’s climate, anthology series can’t aim for average; they have to be better, both in the number of entries that hit and in their overall impact on the audience. Despite a foundation for success, “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities” ultimately feels like little more than an empty cupboard.
“Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities” premieres Tuesday, October 25 with two episodes. Two new episodes will be released every day through October 28.