Guillermo del Toro’s “Cabinet of Curiosities,” a Horror Anthology Fit for the Streaming Age

At the beginning of every episode of the anthology series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” the eponymous director stepped out from his own curvaceous, comic-book-style silhouette to the strains of Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette.” It was a sight gag bulging with subtext. The show ran for a decade, during which time Hitchcock also released “To Catch a Thief,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho,” “Marnie,” and “The Birds.” Yet instead of sweating television’s effect on cinema, Hitchcock had gone and conquered the newer medium. The implication of the opening gambit was that the only TV maestro capable of escaping the looming shadow of the Master of Suspense was the master himself.

Hitchcock’s dryly sinister prime-time persona—perched, like one of his malevolent crows, on the tightrope between magisterial narcissism and gently contemptuous self-deprecation—was a sustained, good-natured joke. Or maybe it was an elaboration of the cameos he made in his movies, which offered fleeting yet pointed reminders of who the real star was. Around the same time that “Alfred Hitchock Presents” aired, the concept of auteurism—which held that directors were, in fact, synonymous with their bodies of work, and could be packaged and pantheonized on the strength of their surnames—was making its way to Hollywood. Hitchcock’s wry asides, delivered directly to the camera in a complicitous deadpan, were in that sense more significant than shtick; they helped him to corporealize his singular cult of directorial personality.

Guillermo del Toro is not Alfred Hitchcock, although he has won more Academy Awards for directing. (One, to be exact.) But del Toro’s new project is an eight-part Netflix production indebted conceptually to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and possessed of a similarly possessive title: “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.” Del Toro is an inveterate collector, who famously filled a two-story residence in the suburbs of Los Angeles with a museum’s worth of literary and cinematic ephemera—a motherlode of books, props, paintings, sculptures, and artifacts culled from his own filmography, and collectively dubbed “Bleak House.” His movies, both in his native Mexico and, more recently, in Hollywood, are similarly intricate jewel cases, with gleaming exteriors enfolding neatly compartmentalized themes. For fans of the director’s ornate fairy-tale aesthetic, films like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Shape of Water” were wunderkammern crammed with gorgeously Gothic bric-a-brac. The desultory consensus around del Toro’s extravagantly produced forties-noir adaptation “Nightmare Alley” (2021), though, was that the cupboards were mostly bare.

Del Toro has lectured articulately and enthusiastically on movie history, including on Hitchcock’s œuvre, and in “Cabinet of Curiosities” he makes a credible and magnanimous master of ceremonies. He introduces each episode with slightly stilted, Rod Serling-ish monologues, which can’t really compete with Hitchcock’s best bits. “Twice I’ve been mistaken for a dirigible; they keep trying to deflate me.” But del Toro also makes the endearing choice to introduce each installment’s director by placing a miniature, handcrafted likeness on a table before him. Whatever one thinks of del Toro’s output, he is, like his friend Martin Scorsese (whom he recently defended chivalrously on social media from a piddling drive-by defamation attempt), a passionate advocate for his peers and their talents. Patronage suits him: pushing each stylized replica forward in turn, the director, who just completed a stop-motion remake of “Pinocchio,” comes off as a benevolent Geppetto, showing his collaborators off to the world.

The directors whom del Toro has lined up are something less than the murderer’s row assembled in 2005 for Showtime’s similarly conceived project “Masters of Horror,” which boasted entries by the all-timers Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante, Larry Cohen, and a semi-retired John Carpenter. But the “Cabinets” roster hints that del Toro is wary of leaning too far into the contemporary horror Zeitgeist. With the exception of the Australian Jennifer Kent, whose acclaimed 2014 début, “The Babadook,” utilized an unnerving, chiaroscuro expressionism, none of the filmmakers on hand is associated with the amorphous yet ubiquitous movement of younger filmmakers defined (and maligned/) under the heading “elevated horror.” Nor does del Toro seem to have reached out to the “mumble-gore” cohort showcased in the found-footage franchise “V/H/S,” which is now on its fifth installment. In fact, the majority of his picks, including the Canadian sci-fi stalwart Vincenzo Natali and the Texan Catherine Hardwicke (who directed the first “Twilight”) are, like del Toro, middle-aged filmmakers who came up in the aftermath of the genre’s post-“Scream” ironization and mostly held the line against the aughts’ onslaught of torture porn. They are, by and large, steady hands; the edgiest of the bunch is probably the Italian-born Panos Cosmatos, a second-generation practitioner with a phantasmagorical aesthetic.

One of the only millennial-adjacent voices in the bunch is the Iranian American provocateur Ana Lily Amirpour, who is best known for her Iran-set vampire tale “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” Her episode in the anthology, “The Outside,” is a grotesque self-improvement parable starring the perpetually dilated Kate Micucci as an insecure woman attempting to physically reinvent herself. It opens with the camera floating serenely down dusky suburban streets lined with Christmas lights, the sort of idyllic setting that traditionally conceals some uncanny form of horror. The monster, as it turns out, is less an entity than an impulse: the consumerist yearning for conformity, a trope as old as the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” though the story here is closer to Larry Cohen’s great mid-eighties satire “The Stuff,” about an addictive desert delicacy that absorbs people whole.

When Stacey decides to try a new, chemically potent skin lotion beloved of her trophy-wife co-workers—a tacky, middle-aged gaggle straight out of Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands”—she suffers a blotchy allergic reaction that seems to externalize some inner malady. “It’s transformative!” she tells her supportive but unnerved husband (Martin Starr) as her skin peels mercilessly away. It’s an effectively squirmy scene, but Amirpour’s own mean-girl sensibilities get the better of her: the film’s chintzy, I-love-the-seventies costume design—such as an oversized “Hang in There, Baby” T-shirt billowing over Micucci’s bare legs—sardonically places the character’s psychic anguish in air quotes, as if marking time until she can go berserk once and for all. An extended outro, with a glowed-up Stacey vamping sociopathically to the strains of “I Believe in Miracles,” tries to stare down the audience in an unbroken closeup but only reinforces the bareness of what we’ve just seen.

To its credit, “Outside” has nervous energy. “The Murmuring,” directed by Kent from a story by del Toro himself, is comparatively sophisticated, but restrained and intellectualized to a fault. Working in a measured, soporific mode that recalls the slow-burn of “The Babadook” minus the iconographic qualities of its ghostly antagonist, Kent’s episode delves into the biggest bugaboo of contemporary horror-movie discourse: the putatively universal and thoroughly exhausted notion of “trauma.” The concept is embodied this time out by a pair of married, melancholy ornithologists, Nancy and Edgar (Essie Davis and Andrew Lincoln), who are trying to sublimate their grief over the death of their child by retiring to a secluded island to study flight patterns (including some Hitchockian clustering in an attic). Don’t look now, but this setup is pretty familiar, and you might not be surprised to learn that the house has its own haunted history.

Davis, who gave a tour de force of emotional deterioration in “The Babadook,” acts sensitively as a bereaved woman who’s so resistant to the idea of catharsis that she’s hollowed herself out. We know this because she says as much: del Toro’s ideas about guilt and grief are so scrupulously lucid that he may as well be writing an essay, which Kent duly illustrates. (“What’s the one word I always mention when anyone asks why I’m drawn to birds?” Nancy asks after discovering an old quilt embroidered with the word “freedom.”) The jump scares help break up the predictable narrative, but they’re pallid and mechanical compared to the jolts in Parker Finn’s new sleeper spooky-season hit “Smile”—a film which also dares to be “about” trauma but uses visual vocabulary that allows it to elicit shocks and mock them, too.

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