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Ranking Every Episode In Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities

Hot take: I am not a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro. His work is not terrible by any means, but there seems to be a disconnect between the ideas in his head and how he projects those images on screen. He is without a doubt a competent director, I just find it difficult to fully enjoy the overwhelming majority of films he creates. The one constant of del Toro I have always enjoyed was his writing. Whether you like him or not you cannot deny he is one hell of a writer and has one messed up brain. When I heard he was creating an anthology series for Netflix I was excited yet trepidatious. When I heard the series was going to be directed by some of the biggest names in horror with del Toro as an executive producer? Well, I was definitely on board.

As with every anthology series, there will be great ones, and some that are less than great; this remains true for Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. The majority of these episodes are absolutely breathtaking, but a few just really miss the mark. During my viewing, I kept thinking about how I really wanted to cover this series, though I didn’t have the time to do full series coverage. So I met myself in the middle and decided we could take a peak in the cabinet and rank each episode in the first season.

A little caveat before getting started: Episode 2 “Graveyard Rats” is ranked twice in this list, one for the color version and one for the black and white version. Both versions provide completely different feelings, even if those feelings are basically bland. So when you see this list starting at nine instead of eight, don’t freak out thinking you missed an episode or that Netflix removed something.

*Author’s note: I don’t need to be the one to say Lovecraft is quite a controversial figure. His writings and personal life are surrounded with controversies regarding support for Hitler, being a proponent for prohibition, and advocating for the preservation of races through the advocation of color lines, to name a few. Though he would later go on and soften his stances on some of these topics, it can’t be swept under the rug. It’s easy to say a lot of Americans shared his views during that time, but it still doesn’t negate the facts. That being said Lovecraft singlehandedly created a new form of art within literature that spawned countless artists to create expansive oeuvres; I think it is possible to accept the art but not the artist.*

9. Episode 6 “Dreams in the Witch House”

Based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft // Written by Mika Watkins // Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

A brother and sister reconnect for the first time in a dream world, surrounded by stumps of trees in a blueish foggy world

Your honor, I would like to enter exhibit A in the case of how not to do a Lovecraft adaptation. Lovecraft’s style of describing the indescribable creates a challenge for filmmakers when trying to adapt his work. The idea of show don’t tell can work wonders, and when it comes to adapting Lovecraft you must ride that fine line of articulating the cosmic horror created in his prose. There are a few adaptations of Lovecraft that I personally deem acceptable like Color Out of SpaceRe-Animator, and From Beyond. These adaptations find a way to explore cosmic lore while doing justice to the source material, even if one of my examples is very loosely based on its original story.

“Dream in the Witch House” does everything wrong. Let’s start with the acting. I hate to be the person to say what more would you expect from the person who directed Twilight, but Hardwicke proves her abilities in Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown so it is not out of the realm of possibility that she can create excellent film. It’s hard to tell whether Hardwicke was not trying or if the actors weren’t trying. Rupert Grint never really struck me as a fantastic actor, rather his performances have been passable. I have no clue where his mind was when filming this. His performance is gauche and it doesn’t seem like a choice. Add to that DJ Qualls’ abysmal portrayal of Jenkins Brown and you have a recipe for disaster.

Next, the set design. I hate to say it looks like a middle school production of Into the Woods because that would be an offense on middle school productions of Into the Woods. From the plastic-looking trees in The Forest, or the laughable witch house, to the plastic leaves lining the floor of The Forest, “Dream in the Witch House” looks like no one even read the source material. You know I want to find something positive to say about this episode but I really can’t pick something solid out of this messy pile of whatever this is. Not only is this the worst part of Season 1, but this may also be one of the worst adaptations of Lovecraft to exist.

8. Episode 1 “Lot 36”

Based on a story by Guillermo del Toro // Written by Regina Corrado and Guillermo del Toro // Directed by Guillermo Navarro

Two men go deeper in a packed storage unit, one holding a candelabra

Guillermo Navarro has been the director of photography on many great projects like Jackie BrownFrom Dusk til Dawn, and Desperado. The man knows his way around a camera. With such an impressive resume it was a surprise to see his directorial effort fall flat. Navarro has floated around the TV industry by directing episodes in Preacher and Hannibal though it seems he may not have learned too much from his time on those projects, either. Not only is “Lot 36” a nothing burger, but it also fails to even tell the progressive story it is trying to tell.

The concept is fascinating: a racist veteran who is down on his luck (womp womp) turns down an offer to give photos/memorabilia to a Mexican immigrant Emelia (Elpidia Carrillo) from her storage locker that was unrightfully sold. Simultaneously Nate (Tim Blake Nelson) stumbles upon a goldmine of Nazi occult items.

I have zero issues with an antagonist being the focal point of a story, in fact, I prefer when a filmmaker can flex their creative muscles to make such a hateful character the center of the horror. There is a certain amount of talent that has to go into creating a compelling story with abhorrent characters. Instead “Lot 36” takes the easy way out without having anyone really face repercussions in any meaningful way. The few characters Nate interacts with, besides Emilia, provide nothing to the story other than a vague villainous nature.

As with a lot of films that try to make a specific point, “Lot 36” focuses on trying to make a specific point without telling a compelling story. Tim Blake Nelson is a pretty solid actor, but his performance in this makes it feel like he got the script half an hour before call time. There is no real character behind Nate and it doesn’t seem like Nelson was given anything good to work off of. Granted, you could make an argument for every piece of negativity I brought to light being purposeful, Navarro’s direction is so bland and unrefined, it fails to be the least bit interesting.

7. Episode 2 “Graveyard Rats” (color edition)

Based on the story by Henry Kuttner // Written and Directed by Vincenzo Natali

A bloodied man grimaces, eyes half shut

It’s crazy how a simple change can make something that I perceive as boring, slightly less boring. While I genuinely did not enjoy “Dreams in the Witch House” and “Lot 36” I found a modicum of entertainment from “Graveyard Rats” (color edition). I’m unsure how this episode is truly meant to be viewed, color or black and white, both have their weaknesses and strengths.

Weaknesses first. The biggest gripe I have with this one is how smooth it looks. This mid-’20s setting needs to be grimy and grainy, you need to make the audience feel as dirty as the characters are. This snappy wannabe Tarantino dialogue creates such a fake sheen of “creative” writing and feels incredibly out of place (and out of its time). Like my complaint about “Witch House,” this entire film looks incredibly fake; when you can tell everything was shot on a set it makes the world feel small and fake. And if it wasn’t filmed on a set, then oh man.

The biggest problem for me falls on the overreliance of digital effects. The few practical effects they use look fine, but the overly smooth-looking rats/creatures just look sloppy. Rather than scaling back on the idea of what the rats stand for Natali makes the mistake of showing too much. The skeleton creature is fine, even if it looks too rubbery; I could wager to say Nathan Grantham’s zombie in “Father’s Day” from Creepshow looks better.

I should probably say something positive for the first time on this list. Much of the entertainment in this story comes from Kuttner’s incredible source material. Kuttner’s story is spectacular, and certain juxtapositions that live deep within the story are absolutely wonderful. It’s been a minute since reading Kuttner’s story so it would be disingenuous to make too many comparisons between the story and the adaptation.

6. Episode 2 “Graveyard Rats” (black and white)

Based on the story by Henry Kuttner // Written and Directed by Vincenzo Natali

As stated moments ago, I’m not too certain if this was initially meant to be black and white or color, though I think it is safe to say it wasn’t meant to be black and white. There is no real depth to the grayscale. It’s difficult to find a clear distinction between mud and blood, which is what leads me to that assumption. Look at something like The Lighthouse, there is a clear distinction between what can be blood and what can be dirt/mud.

That being said, I enjoyed the black-and-white version much more than the color version. The only real stylistic difference is how certain gold items (teeth and a pendant) shine gold, making a nice visual differentiation from the mundanity of the images. While this version still looks way too smooth and fake, the black and white add a nice level of grain to the images. This grain gives the digital effects a bit more leeway with how overproduced they look. If you are going to watch the series, I would recommend skipping the regular version and going with the black-and-white one.

5. Episode 4 “The Outside”

Based on the webcomic by Emily Carroll // Written by Haley Z. Boston // Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour

A woman holds her hand up to a television, matching the hand on the television. The woman is covered in rashes, while the man on the TV looks well put together in a white suit with quaffed hair

There is something about Ana Lily Amirpour that just hits me in all the right places. Her films transcend the screen a sit deep in the pit of your soul long after the credits roll. “The Outside” is not my favorite thing she has created, but it’s powerful. With a stellar cast, fantastic directing, and multiple perfectly executed setups/payoffs “The Outside” takes the idea of beauty and turns it upside down.

Instead of trying to turn an antagonist into a protagonist, Amirpour succeeds in doing quite the opposite. Playing with the ambiguity of real versus imagined we leave this story questioning what was real and what wasn’t. Has Stacey (Kate Micucci) stumbled upon a true supernatural entity within Alo Glo, or has she simply flipped a switch and completely lost it? You can easily make a case for either, though I would rather just let this story exist on its own and take it at face value for what we see.

Kate Micucci is a great comedian, and I love seeing comedians take a foray into horror. The whole ‘ugly duckling’ trope is handled perfectly. Instead of putting glasses on someone, and putting their hair up, who is, objectively, attractive is overplayed. In “The Outside” they take care with crafting the look of Stacey pre-transformation, giving her these obscenely hysterical contact lenses, a pair of wild teeth, and an almost Joe Dirt-inspired hairpiece.

Micucci does an excellent job playing off of her two main costars with husband Keith (Martin Starr) and Alo Glo Man (Dan Stevens). These two men act as the angel and demon on her shoulder. I would absolutely love to see another project with the three of them together. Also, Starr has one of the greatest line deliveries in history when Stacey says she is ugly. I don’t want to give too much away here but the connection of Stacey’s love of taxidermy has an excellent payoff that I did not see coming from a mile away.

4. Episode 3 “The Autopsy”

Based on the short story by Michael Shea // Written by David S. Goyer // Directed by David Prior

A man holds a vial up to a light source to examine a vial of murky looking liquid

This is probably where we get into the more controversial pickings. There is an assumption deep in me that makes me think this will be the number one spot on the overwhelming majority of people’s lists (seeing as “The Autopsy” is the highest rated on both Letterboxd and IMDb). At this point, my ranking definitely comes down to personal preference as these last four picks are all expertly written and directed.

As the third entry in this season, we diverge from stories that are very surface-level, which was disconcerting up to this point. The almost nihilistic themes this story takes on was a refreshing break from the first two. I am finding myself having difficulty with some of these rankings of trying not to say too much while still getting my point across and this entry has been the breaking point for me. There are so many interesting ideas broached here that I find wanting to discuss, but can’t really bring them up without complete spoilage.

The main themes in this episode surround isolationism, existentialism, and selflessness in the face of pure cosmic destruction. Dr. Carl Winters (F. Murray Abraham) finds himself at the tail end of a terminal disease, with six months left to live. His longtime friend Sheriff Nate Craven (Glynn Turman) requests the good doctor’s assistance with the autopsy of nine bodies from a mineshaft explosion. The explosion isn’t the only thing rocking this small town, as there have been a plethora of disappearances in the town. The majority of “The Autopsy” finds Dr. Winters alone with these nine bodies, but the most entertaining part of this episode is the immaculate dialogue between Abraham and Turman. I would honestly just watch two hours of them talking and reminiscing; hell I wish they had a podcast.

Out of all of the episodes, this is the only one I had gone back to rewatch, and the episode I took the most notes on (in total I have 7 pages of notes!). The correlation between Dr. Winters’ terminal illness and, well, what happens completely went over my head in my first viewing. At this point, I have almost talked myself into moving “The Autopsy” up one or two ranks, but if I keep second-guessing myself I don’t think I’ll ever hit my deadline. MOVING ON.

3. Episode 5 “Pickman’s Model”

Based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft // Written by Lee Patterson // Directed by Keith Thomas

Two men stare at a painting, from the painting's POV

Who would have thought that one series could boast both the worst and one of the best Lovecraft adaptations? The complete 180 from “Witch House” to “Pickman’s Model” is quite a miracle. Even if “Pickman’s Model” sways a bit more from the source material than “Witch House” does, this episode, and Thomas’ directing, completely embodies the idea of Lovecraft way more than Hardwicke does.

Thomas’ direction excels with the idea of creating a world where these Lovecraftian creatures exist both in our minds and in the real world. The ambiguity of whether or not what we see is real pushes this episode in an overly compelling direction. Not to mention the physical representations of Lovecraft’s words into paintings are, what I personally assume, hauntingly accurate of what Lovecraft had going on in his head (right next to all the Hitler did nothing wrong stuff).

While the paintings and artistic aspect of this story are impressive what really sells me is the inclusion of one of our generation’s greatest and most misunderstood actors: Crispin Glover. Glover, playing the titular character, just eats up every scene he is in, and we are better people for it. The best way to describe his accent is a cockney JFK, it’s rich and colorful, leaving me looking like a character in Smile. Honestly, he doesn’t get the love he deserves.

To have this episode and “Witch House” in the same series seems like a disservice to “Pickman’s Model.” The paintings in this episode would be a prized collection for any genre fan’s wall. The lithographic, almost animated effect applied to Pickman’s paintings provides an extra level of horror and entertainment. I’m curious to see how others who appreciate Lovecraft’s writings will respond to this episode.

2. Episode 8 “The Murmuring”

Based on the short story by Guillermo del Toro // Written and Directed by Jennifer Kent

A forlorn looking woman stares at the camera mid cry

This is probably a good moment to step back and give a possible hot take, horror doesn’t always have to be scary to be good horror. Such as it is with “The Murmuring.” There is a supernatural element to it, though this acts merely as a setup for the character’s emotional breakthroughs and is a good backdrop to how both characters deal with the situation they find their patchy relationship in.

Jennifer Kent proves time and time again just how much of an emotional powerhouse she and her filmmaking is. The Babadook follows themes of depression, The Nightingale falls more in line with the nihilistic past of Australia and is beyond depressing, and “The Murmuring” falls similarly with those two previous films in regards to emotional damage. While Kent went to the Lars von Trier school of filmmaking, she created powerful and beautiful pieces of art that find their own specific style.

“The Murmuring” follows ornithologists Nancy (Essie Davis) and Edgar Bradley (Andrew Lincoln) who spend their careers following the murmurations of the Dunlin; birds who happen to fly in flocks of thousands and create beautiful patterns executed with extreme precision. I am no bird expert, in fact, I don’t even think birds are real, so I find it difficult to fully place the symbolism of the birds. However, I do think I understand the symbolism behind the murmurations (though getting into it would completely ruin the story).

Cue me being the millionth person to say, “wHAt iS RIcK GrIMes dOInG iN ThIS?!?!” No matter how he got involved in this project his addition is welcomed. This marks the second collaboration between Kent and Essie Davis, and the second time Kent doesn’t let Davis get a GODDAMN GOOD NIGHT SLEEP. “The Murmuring” is one of the most beautiful and artistic horror films I think I have ever seen. Each shot seems meticulously planned out, and each shot has a specific meaning. Davis and Lincoln give Oscar-worthy performances, which is definitely in part their doing, but the kudos really need to fall back to Kent.

If you are in a state of emotional turmoil “The Murmuring” will destroy you. If you are not in a state of emotional turmoil “The Murmuring” will still destroy you. If it weren’t for the next episode, this would easily be number one on my list. This is the only episode to make me cry ugly tears.

1. Episode 7 “The Viewing”

Written by Panos Cosmatos & Aaron Stewart-Ahn // Directed by Panos Cosmatos

A group of people meet at an underground parking garage

What is there to say about Panos Cosmatos? Saying he is one of the greatest filmmakers alive, or of all time, is really a disservice to him. What Cosmatos has done with this form of art is beyond a spectacle. The worlds he is able to create in his works are beyond spectacular and unrivaled by most. What do you get when you put Peter Weller, Sofia Boutella, Eric André, and Steven Agee (to name a few) in a room with a metric f*ckton of pure cocaine? You get one weird ass cosmic horror trip that is just as crazy as it is hysterical.

I’ve always appreciated Cosmatos’ screenwriting style. His focus is never really dialogue, rather he focuses on telling stories visually and letting the dialogue form from the world he creates. The cast of characters Lionel Lassiter invites to his mansion each specialize in one specific thing, and Lassiter’s immense fortune allows him the ability to procure each of them, or anyone for that matter, to be [basically] his employee. This script is probably Cosmatos’ most dialogue-heavy script, but it really works. Each actor does an excellent job at embodying their respective characters, and everyone does supremely well at playing off each other. Also, a special shoutout to Eric André. I think because of the nature of his TV show he doesn’t get the respect he deserves as an actor, when in reality the character he plays on The Eric André Show is one of the greatest parody characters to exist.

The lighting and set design here feel so Cosmatos. If you don’t like his aesthetic then this isn’t for you, but if you eat up the style this auteur has cultivated through his career then you will absolutely love this style. This may be the slowest story to ‘get to the point’ out of this entire season, but the build-up of reclusive multi-millionaire Lassiter is incredibly intriguing and fairly creepy. Out of all of the episodes in this season, the payoff here made me the most excited. If you know, you know. I am really trying to stay away from spoilers, so if you haven’t seen this episode…you must.

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Written by Brendan Jesus

I am an award-winning horror screenwriter, rotting away in New Jersey.

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