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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities’ review: 7 tricks, 1 treat

F. Murray Abraham in the episode “The Autopsy,” which benefits from his melancholy performance as a coroner who discovers something unexpected.

By Mike Hale

The title “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities” makes a promise and delivers on it, to a greater degree than is absolutely necessary.

Del Toro, the strongest brand name in the horror business, did not direct any of the eight short films in the Netflix anthology, which premieres this week from Tuesday through Friday. But he recruited the writers and directors, and the series does show signs of a curatorial hand or perhaps of a desire on the part of the chosen filmmakers to salute the master.

For one thing: latex monsters. Most of the episodes — seven of the eight, by my count — incorporate a creature that is at least in part an actual, elaborate construction of the type del Toro has deployed so artfully in his own films. An enormous rat queen bares her fangs in Vincenzo Natali’s “Graveyard Rats”; a bug-eyed Lovecraftian beast bellows in Keith Thomas’ “Pickman’s Model”; in Ana Lily Amirpour’s self-improvement fable “The Outside,” goo is layered on an actress (Lize Johnston) playing a beauty product that won’t stay in the bottle.

The regular appearance of these creatures ties into another common thread, one that is, unfortunately, even more noticeable: “Cabinet of Curiosities” is just not very frightening. It’s as if del Toro told the filmmakers, “I don’t care what you do, but make sure you don’t scare anyone.”

Like Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock, del Toro briefly introduces each of the installments, opening doors and drawers in the towering cabinet of the title and pulling out objects that reflect the episode’s themes. There’s a fussiness to these segments that carries over into the series. Seen as a whole, the films, nearly all period pieces, have a drawing-room flavor, a quasi-literary puzzle-box aesthetic that gets tired over the course of nearly eight hours. There’s an abundance of visual talent on display in “Cabinet,” but there isn’t a corresponding stock of storytelling imagination.

Character and real surprise mostly take a back seat to the working out of not very interesting or original narrative puzzles — you tick off the twists and reveals on the way to the Crackerjack prize at the bottom of the box. The first episode, Guillermo Navarro’s “Lot 36” (written by del Toro and Regina Corrado based on a short story by del Toro), is a case in point. Tim Blake Nelson gives an engaging, spiky performance as an angry Reagan-era Vietnam vet — an early adopter of white replacement theory — who supports himself by vulturing dead people’s storage spaces. When the contents of a locker he obtains have Nazi-tainted occult powers, you wait with some interest to see what the punchline will be. But there isn’t one, really, just some latex nastiness.

Amirpour’s episode is the season’s most straightforward example of horror as cultural commentary. Kate Micucci plays Stacey, a mousy bank teller intimidated by her co-workers, a gossipy, appearance-obsessed crew resembling a reality-TV cast. The allegory of inner versus outer beauty is complicated by Stacey’s oddness — her thematically resonant hobby is taxidermy, in which she enshrines outer beauty by replacing animals’ insides with plastic foam.

She’s a ripe target for a face cream plugged in late-night infomercials, and Amirpour brings some wit to Stacey’s deepening obsession with remaking herself; the scene in which she first confronts the lotion monster is an amusing echo of a Blue Man Group skit. But there’s not a lot going on in the screenplay, written by Haley Z. Boston, beyond the usual grotesqueries. When the story ends, it’s one idea short — you wait for another twist that doesn’t come.

Episodes with less conceptual weight — like “Pickman’s Model” and the other H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, “Dreams in the Witch House,” which is given a bit of a jokey Hammer Films vibe by “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke — are more successful as stand-alone stories but no more invigorating as horror. “The Autopsy,” written by David S. Goyer and directed by David Prior, benefits from F. Murray Abraham’s melancholy performance as a coroner who finds something unexpected while conducting post-mortems on the victims of a coal mining accident.

Like any good Halloween haul, though, “Cabinet” contains one real treat, beneath the healthy snacks and candy corn. The final episode, “The Murmuring,” based on another del Toro story and written and directed by Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”), happens to be the one that does without any highly designed creatures. Incorporating the current fascination with the bird swarms known as murmurations, it’s a wistful ghost story that combines visual motifs from Hitchcock’s “The Birds” with the ambience of “The Turn of the Screw.” It also has a few authentically scary moments, achieved through suggestion and editing rather than special effects.

Andrew Lincoln and Essie Davis are graceful and believable as a married pair of bird researchers trying to recover from a family tragedy. (Their essential rightness as a couple is obvious from their habit of greeting each other with whistled bird calls.) And the episode looks like none other in the series — Kent takes the action outdoors and fills the screen with quietly gorgeous sunset shots of bird formations over water. The wife, who is the primary scientist, fights her own demons as well as the condescension of men who want to believe she’s imagining things. Kent has thought it all through, and when “The Murmuring” ends, it is moving, and satisfying, in a way that the rest of the series hasn’t reached for.

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