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Saturday, November 19, 2022 11:08 PM
(Last updated on Saturday, November 19, 2022 11:25 PM)
On the Viewer - Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities: Season 1
 by Fëanor

Hello folks! Been quite a while since I posted on here about anything other than my books, but I recently finished making my way through the first season of Netflix's horror anthology show, Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities, and I thought I'd talk about it a bit.

Guillermo del Toro, if you are somehow unaware, is a film director who is known for fantastical movies about monsters. I'm a huge fan. This show is kind of his version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; he shows up at the beginning to introduce each episode, but it's a different director telling a different story each time, and there's no connection between the stories, besides the shared genre.

Episode 1 - Lot 36
This is one of the two episodes co-written by del Toro; it's directed by Guillermo Navarro, a cinematographer and long-time collaborator of his. It's set in America during the Gulf War and stars Tim Blake Nelson as a mean, greedy, self-interested, misanthropic veteran who buys the contents of abandoned storage units and sells off the items in them for as much money as he can get. He has no sympathy with, or interest in, the former owners of the units, and when one shows up to ask for some of her personal effects back, he refuses out of pure spite. He's the classic awful horror protagonist that you spend the whole story just waiting to see get his comeuppance.

His latest unit, it turns out, belonged to a former Nazi, and has some very creepy, but also very rare and valuable, items hidden away in it, including an infamous set of volumes on black magic. If he can find the final volume in the set, a collector promises him a huge cash payout - large enough to pay off the loan shark who's been threatening him.

This is a pretty solid horror story, with a creepy story, creepy and effective visuals, and some of my favorite horror tropes. But it does suffer a bit from having a completely unlikable and occasionally stupid protagonist. It also introduces some mysteries that are never satisfactorily explained. I'm okay with that sometimes, but this time I really wanted to know why that guy was skipping on the security cam footage. The conclusion of the story, though satisfying in its own way, feels a bit anticlimactic. You're told what's going to happen, and then you have to wait around while it inevitably happens.

Episode 2 - Graveyard Rats
This one's quite fun. It's written and directed by Vincenzo Natali, who made the original Cube. It has a darkly comic flavor to it and stars David Hewlett as a highly-educated man who, nevertheless, finds himself trying to scrape by as a graverobber. The cemetery where he plies his trade has had only slim pickings lately due to an extraordinary rat infestation - they keep stealing away the corpses, and all the valuable items buried with them, before he can plunder them. If he doesn't come up with some big ticket items soon, the sketchy guy at the dock who buys the goods off him may just bury him instead.

You may notice the plot here is very similar to that of the first episode: a down-on-his-luck guy engaged in a seedy enterprise must make a big score or likely die. This time, though, our protagonist is slightly more likable. Sure, he's a little pompous and awkward, but he has something of the sad, bumbling clown about him, too. Oh, and he's also claustrophobic. You can imagine what happens to him later.

This episode is a lot of familiar tropes presented well, with good effects and cool visuals. There's nothing astonishing here, but it gets the job done in the creepy crawlies department.

Episode 3 - The Autopsy
Another rather strong entry, this one directed by newcomer David Prior, and written by the prolific and talented screenwriter, director, and producer David S. Goyer. Our main character this time is a clever, likable medical examiner played by F. Murray Abraham. He's deathly ill, but facing it with wry equanimity. A sheriff who's an old friend of his has called him in to perform autopsies on a bunch of dead bodies recovered from the site of a mining accident. The "accident" was preceded by a strange series of disappearances, reappearances, and grisly discoveries, and the sheriff wants to know how it's all connected and what it all means. Our medical examiner hero discovers the answers, to his cost.

This is a disturbing and gory one. There were a couple of scenes where I had to turn away and squeeze my eyes shut until they were over. With Abraham in the lead, and other talented actors in the secondary roles, it's full of fine performances. There's a thoughtful, philosophical feel to portions of it, but in some ways I feel like it explains too much. The villain is an inveterate monologuer, and he gets a little tiresome. But if you want the creeps, this will give you the creeps!

Episode 4 - The Outside
Hoo boy. This one is something! I'm not familiar with the writer or the director, who are Haley Z. Boston and Ana Lily Amirpour, respectively. This episode features our first female main character, a bank teller named Stacey. She's played by Kate Micucci, with Martin Starr as her husband and Dan Stevens as the host of the unsettling infomercial that claims it can make Stacey's dream come true. Said dream is to be beautiful and popular, so she can fit in with the beautiful, popular girls at work. Why this is her dream isn't always easy to understand, as the other girls at work are pretty awful to her, and do nothing but gossip incessantly about all the sleaziest local drama, insulting and disparaging everyone they talk about.

After a hallucinatory interaction with a late night TV commercial, Stacey becomes obsessed with a skin cream that she's sure will help transform her into her perfect self. She uses it and continues to use it, despite the fact that it makes her break out horribly in red itchy spots. The cream is white and does a lot of splurting and squelching. The resemblance to another white substance is definitely not a mistake.

One thing I found interesting about this story is that, counter to the expected stereotype, Stacey's husband is not an abusive jerk! He is unflaggingly supportive and loving. It doesn't make any difference in the end, but still, it's refreshing.

This is really the only story in the whole anthology that features social commentary. It talks about the cultural obsession with a very specific kind of shallow, boilerplate sexual attractiveness, which television media encourages women to seek out and inhabit at the expense of all else. The pursuit of the destruction of idiosyncratic self in preference for this smooth, plastic ideal leads one woman into madness, violence, and death. It's surreal, darkly funny, and often deeply uncomfortable to watch.

Episode 5 - Pickman's Model
This was one of the episodes I was looking forward to the most, as it's based on a classic short story by H.P. Lovecraft that I quite enjoy. Sadly, I was disappointed. It's directed by Keith Thomas, another newcomer I was unfamiliar with. I did recognize the two male stars, however: Ben Barnes is our main character, Will, and the perpetually weird and creepy Crispin Glover plays the titular Richard Pickman. Will and Pickman are both art students at Miskatonic University, a school familiar to anyone who's read Lovecraft, and a school which is, most unfortunately, located in Arkham, Massachusetts. I say "most unfortunately" because this setting convinced the filmmakers to have Barnes and Glover speak all of their lines in absolutely atrocious Boston accents. Glover's is particularly egregious. It makes listening to the dialog a truly painful experience, far more horrifying and off-putting than any of the nightmarish sights we're presented with.

The plot is tiresome, proceeding in odd stops and starts, and sometimes veering off unexpectedly. It opens with odd outsider Pickman joining Will's art class. Will is fascinated by the man's unique, nightmarish paintings, and at first tries to befriend him, even calling him by the unfortunate nickname "Dickie." But Will quickly discovers that Pickman's work doesn't just look nightmarish - it also seems to bring nightmares to life in the waking world. The surreal visions Will experiences after looking at Pickman's paintings nearly ruin his relationship with his girlfriend and her family. Luckily for him, at this point Pickman inexplicably decides to pick up and leave, taking all his paintings with him.

Here the story makes a jarring time jump. All of a sudden, Will has gray in his hair and the girlfriend who seemed to have dumped him in the previous scene is now his wife. They even have a young son. This was such an unexpected and unexplained turn of events, I thought maybe it was meant to be a dream - but no!

Anyway, Will's successful, comfortable life is once again thrown off the rails by the sudden (again, unexplained) reappearance of Pickman and his oddly infectious paintings.

There's an attempt made to connect this story with the larger Lovecraftian Mythos by having some of the characters start chanting about Yog-Sothoth (the name of one of Lovecraft's Great Old Ones), but it doesn't go much of anywhere.

What exactly is the deal with Pickman's art? What does it do to people, and what does that have to do with his family history and the thing in his basement? It's not entirely clear. This adaptation does eventually recreate the shocking reveal that was the climax of the original short story. But since by that time we've already guessed as much, it's not very shocking. Furthermore, this adaptation seems to be telling a different story entirely, so the reveal doesn't make a great deal of sense. The final scene, though certainly horrific and effective in its way, is also a well-used cliche. After it's strongly implied that a certain horrible act has been performed, we crawl slowly toward the shocking reveal that...yes, that's just exactly what happened. Clumsily undercutting your own final revelation doesn't make for a great ending.

Episode 6 - Dreams in the Witch House
Another disappointing Lovecraft adaptation! Yay. This one was directed by Catherine Hardwicke and written by Mika Watkins, and it stars Rupert "Ronald Weasley" Grint in the main role, struggling with another very bad fake accent. He plays a spiritual investigator who, as a child, witnessed his twin sister's spirit being dragged away into another dimension upon her untimely death. He's been obsessed with finding his way to the other side ever since. With the help of a mysterious drug, and a stay in a haunted house built by a witch, he succeeds - unfortunately for him.

"Dreams in the Witch-House" is a lesser known Lovecraft story, but one I quite like, with fascinating ideas like mad geometry, impossible angles, and a creepy rat-like familiar named Brown Jenkin. Unfortunately, this adaptation doesn't really capture the flavor of that story, though it does include some of the characters and plot elements, and certainly features some really fantastically unsettling images. The crooked silhouette of the witch, lit only by her own burning eyes, lurking in the dark corners of the old house; the walls covered with strange symbols and creeping vines; and within those walls, the pattering feet of a rat with a human face...yeah, that's quality stuff.

Sadly, there's a lot of other stuff here that feels like filler, and doesn't work as well. The episode drags on a bit, and certain twists of the plot, including the final one at the end, feel random and arbitrary.

Episode 7 - The Viewing
A lot of horror stories can be broken into two parts: the slow buildup of tension and mystery, and then the horrifying revelation and payoff. The Viewing is like 80% buildup. It's well done, and super stylish buildup, but still...that's a lot of buildup. And the payoff, when it finally comes, is anticlimactic.

This episode was written and directed by Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn, who are also responsible for the absolutely insane and surreal Nicolas Cage vehicle, Mandy. I was not surprised to learn this, as the music and visuals in this short reminded me of that film. The music and visuals are effective and fun - this thing is dripping with style.

Eric Andre, Charlyne Yi, Steve Agee, and Michael Therriault play experts in widely varying fields who are all called together for a mysterious "viewing" by a reclusive and fabulously wealthy eccentric played by Peter Weller. After a lengthy intro, a rambling conversation, and a lot of drug-taking, Weller's character finally reveals that he's brought this group together to look at a weird rock he found. The rock is much more than it seems (natch), and things go horribly awry (natch).

The climax is exciting and gory. But then the story just kind of...trails off. There's a lot of philosophical talk, and a pretty cool monster, but what exactly is the point of it all? It's not clear.

Episode 8 - The Murmuring
This episode is easily the best of the season. It's written and directed by Jennifer Kent, who made the modern horror classic The Babadook. This short is concerned with the same theme as that film - grief.

Nancy and Edgar, a married couple who've recently experienced a terrible loss, are researching why and how birds are able to move so swiftly and seamlessly in enormous flocks called murmurations. As part of their research, they head out to a secluded island to record the behavior of birds called dunlins. They've been provided an old house to stay in while they're out there, but the house is haunted by its own terrible secrets. As Nancy struggles with sleeplessness and terrifying hallucinations, she becomes obsessed with learning the history of the house and the family that once lived there, and her relationship with Edgar begins to break apart.

Powerful, visceral performances from Essie Davis and Andrew Lincoln give this story weight and realism. It's a slower, more lyrical story than the rest, but it has plenty of scares and terrifying moments. It's also far and away the most emotionally hard-hitting episode of the season. My eyes were definitely leaking by the end. It's a gorgeous, deeply moving piece - a wonderful conclusion to the season.

It sounds like del Toro is already planning a second season. The first one was uneven, but that's to be expected of an anthology series. I'll definitely be curious to see more.
Tagged (?): Horror (Not), Lovecraft (Not), Netflix (Not), On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not)
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