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Ranking Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities Episodes, From Best to Worst

The filmmakers who stick to their strengths and signature styles emerge with the best quality episodes.
  • Cabinet of Curiosities (Photos: Netflix)
    Cabinet of Curiosities (Photos: Netflix)

    The strength of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is in its embrace of its personalities. There’s del Toro himself, of course, acting as emcee as well as the series creator and producer. Primetimer’s Joe Reid writes in his review that "the Oscar-winning director and producer brings an elegant, foreboding presence as master of ceremonies," and the dark whimsy of del Toro’s work shines through in his introductions to each episode, both in the writing and his delivery. 

    Del Toro is fond of his directors as well, presenting a miniature carving of each of them alongside a relevant object from the titular Cabinet as he reveals the title and filmmaker for that evening’s tale. Reid notes that del Toro is "an excellent curator of talent on this show," with the additional benefit of allowing said talent to, in essence, just do their thing within the show’s loose parameter of an hour long horror story. 

    This does create a more varied product than in less creator-focused anthology series; Cabinet of Curiosities is more Masters of Horror than Tales from the Crypt. But inconsistency (or, to put it more generously, diversity of style) is baked into the anthology horror format. And here, it’s the filmmakers who stick to their strengths and signature styles who emerge with the best quality episodes. Amid such strong personalities, the lack of a point of view can be deadly. 

    We've ranked all eight episode of this horror anthology, which is now streaming in its entirety on Netflix. 

    1. "The Autopsy"

    Episode 3, directed by David Prior

    Out of all the filmmakers in del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, David Prior has the shortest resume as a director. That makes it even more impressive that his entry, “The Autopsy,” is the standout episode of the series. For what’s essentially a TV movie, the '70s coal country setting is convincing, with only that familiar overlit Netflix look to break the illusion. (Prior’s not alone here; most of the episodes in Cabinet of Curiosities' first season have this issue.) More importantly, “The Autopsy” is genuinely disturbing.

    Prior establishes an uncanny atmosphere early on, as a grizzled small-town sheriff played by Glynn Turman tells F. Murray Abraham’s jaded medical examiner about a mysterious case he needs his old friend to help investigate. Prior then layers morbid inevitability — also a key element of his debut feature, The Empty Man — on top of this sense of mystery, using explicit autopsy scenes to put the stink of death in viewers’ nostrils before unleashing the shambling corpses and sinister alien parasites. Both of these are truly terrifying, which is not at all easy to pull off. And although every episode of Cabinet of Curiosities has something to recommend it, only Prior and “The Autopsy” really deliver the heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed goods. 

    2. "The Murmuring"

    Episode 8, directed by Jennifer Kent

    “Oh, great,” you might be thinking. “Another Jennifer Kent ghost story about grief.” But the fact remains that Kent does this type of story better than anyone, infusing this melancholy tale about a pair of married ornithologists in 1950s upstate New York trying to suppress their sorrow after the death of their daughter with a profound sadness. These are realistic adult characters, with realistic adult relationships and issues. And Essie Davis, who also starred in The Babadook, wrings every bit of tragedy and terror she can out of her character’s haunting. Kent also has a talent for deploying conventional ghost-story elements — slamming doors, the whispering of dead children — with startling effectiveness, which she combines here with elegant imagery of birds in flight. Everything about “The Murmuring” is tailored to its director’s strengths, and its finale delivers a devastating emotional punch.

    3. "Graveyard Rats" 

    Episode 2, directed by Vincenzo Natali

    Although Victorian-era grave-robbing is synonymous with Scotland’s own Burke and Hare, "Graveyard Rats" moves the action to Salem, Massachusetts for an adaptation of a short story by Henry Kuttner — not H.P. Lovecraft, although Kuttner was his friend and contemporary. There are some really wild elements to Kuttner’s tale, like a labyrinth of secret tunnels under Salem that date back to the city’s infamous witch trials; luckily, director Vincenzo Natali maintains a consistent tone of macabre black comedy throughout the episode that makes these details easier to swallow.

    Natali, who also directed Cube and Splice, pushes the rat imagery to the point of surreal abstraction, creating striking images like thousands of rats falling from the ceiling of a dilapidated boarding house in a chittering typhoon. The shortest of the eight episodes in Cabinet of Curiosities’ first season, "Graveyard Rats" also has the benefit of knowing when to strike, when to lie in wait, and when to leave them wanting more. 

    4. "The Outside"

    Episode 4, directed by Ana Lily Amirpour

    There’s nothing especially scary about "The Outside," from director Ana Lily Amirpour. There are dark moments, and moments of disgust. But the overall tone of the episode keeps its feet firmly planted in horror-comedy. The theme of the story, a pop-feminist take on body horror through the lens of body dysmorphia, is as bold as the direction. But the plot is secondary to the "The Outside"'s visual aesthetic, an aggressive, off-kilter melange of the most obnoxious suburban design and fashion trends of the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Dan Stevens’ untraceable accent in a minor role as a TV infomercial host is another great example of Amirpour reveling in the bizarre details of her story. But the downside of all this is that the pure uncut weirdness comes at the expense of focus and momentum, which means that the episode teeters on the edge of self-indulgence throughout its hour-long run time.

    5. "The Viewing"

    Episode 7, directed by Panos Cosmatos

    Everything about "The Viewing" just screams Panos Cosmatos. It’s got the New Age brutalist design of Beyond the Black Rainbow, the heavy-metal occultism of Mandy, and the druggy atmosphere of everything he does. Even the casting, which is stunty but also somehow perfect, recalls Nicolas Cage in Mandy. But there’s a flip side to this ineffable Panos-ness: "The Viewing" also suffers from the director’s biggest weakness, which is his tendency to disguise (or, at least, attempt to disguise) thin storytelling with trippy visuals.

    Once the amusement of recognizing Eric Andre, Steve Agee, and Charlyne Yi wears off, drug-fueled monologuing keeps the story going for a little while. And once that starts to drag, the emergence of a freaky, goopy thing from a space egg that looks like it’s coated in liquid mercury adds a “WTF?” factor that buys the story a few more minutes. And when that gets repetitive… you get the picture. Still, in the end, too much is somehow not enough, another common issue with Cosmatos’ work. 

    6. "Dreams in the Witch House"

    Episode 6, directed by Catherine Hardwicke

    Those who rolled their eyes at the pallid, glittery complexions and perpetually overcast skies in the Twilight series will be equally irked by those same aesthetic flourishes in "Dreams in the Witch House," from Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke. But hey, an authorial signature is an authorial signature, right? Hardwicke brings a fairytale quality to the better of Cabinet of Curiosities' two H.P. Lovecraft stories, adding a tragic backstory, some iffy Native American spirituality, and a period-appropriate obsession with spiritualism to pad out her adaptation. Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint stars, which only enhances the generic fantasy-adventure quality. But while "Dreams in the Witch House" does have some undeniable flair, its actual horror elements are variable in terms of their relative effectiveness and ridiculousness. Some, like human-faced rat Brown Jenkin, can be both in the same scene, making this an inconsistent entry into the series. 

    7. "Pickman’s Model"

    Episode 5, directed by Keith Thomas

    The lack of a distinctive point of view is what sinks "Pickman’s Model," from director Keith Thomas. Thomas broke out with 2019’s The Vigil, then tripped on his proverbial shoelaces with Firestarter earlier this year. And unfortunately, “Pickman’s Model” only deepens the mediocre groove Thomas is settling into as a filmmaker. Like Hardwicke’s entry, “Pickman’s Model” is based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, and the episode sticks to the late 19th/early 20th-century time period and Massachusetts setting in which the original tale took place.

    But "Pickman’s Model" does not refine its period setting to its creator’s tastes, as Kent does in her episode; as a result, the backdrops are generic, which makes certain elements stand out — mostly in a bad way. The voluminous blood impresses, but the overwrought Massachusetts accents are, frankly, embarrassing. And Thomas doesn’t have a strong enough grasp on his story’s mood to fully envelop the viewer in the protagonist’s increasingly unstable mindset, which makes the moments of terror only fitfully convincing. 

    8. "Lot 36"

    Episode 1, directed by Guillermo Navarro

    Mexican cinematographer Guillermo Navarro worked with Guillermo del Toro from his debut feature Cronos in 1993 up through Pacific Rim in 2013. And del Toro returns the favor with a place for Navarro in his Cabinet of Curiosities. (To be fair, Navarro is an accomplished director in his own right, mostly of television.) And "Lot 36" does look pretty good. But the only really spooky or interesting elements of the series’s first episode are the occult antiques (and morbidly fascinating Victorian hair necklace) scavenger Nick Appleton (Tim Blake Nelson) discovers in a storage unit midway through the installment. Meanwhile, the political commentary is clunky, and the performances are uncompelling. That makes this the TV equivalent of browsing an oddities market while right-wing talk radio plays in the background — diverting, perhaps, and a little off-putting, but not terribly exciting. 

    Katie Rife is a freelance writer and film critic based in Chicago. 

    TOPICS: Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, Netflix, Ana Lily Amirpour, Catherine Hardwicke, David Prior, Guillermo del Toro, Guillermo Navarro, Jennifer Kent, Keith Thomas, Panos Cosmatos, Vincenzo Natali