Famed gothic horror writer and director, Guillermo del Toro, has curated this haunting anthology of horror shorts, directed by an assortment of horror maestros and up-and-comers. From the paranormal to the extraterrestrial, this is a diverse collection of shorts that hits most corners of the genre.
Some of these shorts I absolutely loved, while a couple I thought were just good, but overall this Cabinet of Curiosities makes for a fantastic companion piece this Halloween. Every short in here focuses on slow-burn storytelling with a commitment to crafting atmospheric horror… meaning there’s basically no jump-scares. The joy is that no matter which corner of the genre you lean into the most, there’s something in here for you. Before I go into each individual short, I want to highlight the choice to have Guillermo del Toro himself intro each and every episode. His little monologues beautifully set the tone for the story to come. But my favourite thing about these intros is that he makes a point to highlight the directors, ensuring the names of these creators are actually heard.
Overall, this series sits at a solid 8.5/10. But for the individual scores, see below.
Lot 36 – Guillermo Navarro
Despite being an anthology, there’s a lot of pressure put on the first short in the series to set the tone and deliver something thrilling. Lot 36 really steps up to the plate and delivers a brilliant display of suspense. From the outset, you know there’s something strange and eerie going on, but it’s not clear exactly what. The narrative introduces enough elements to throw you off and get your mind going in one direction, before sending you in the complete opposite. It takes its time to really introduce and flesh out our lead character, played very well by Tim Blake Nelson. It’s really hammered home that he’s not a likeable protagonist, and the story uses that hatred to its advantage.
The slow-burn approach is perfectly orchestrated, allowing tension to build and build until the payoff finally comes. As one of the shorter episodes, it’s well paced and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The mystery unfolds rapidly enough to keep audiences engaged and not feel like it’s stalling. There’s one character in here I feel they could have done a little more with. They linger around the storage lot for the entire short, seemingly without much to really do. They play a role, but one that could have been capitalised on a little more.
In the end, Lot 36 is a great display of how a simple premise and slow-building narrative can create an excessive amount of suspense in such a short amount of time. The payoff is great and it’s all led by a committed Tim Blake Nelson.
Graveyard Rats – Vincenzo Natali
I do love myself a great deal of claustrophobic horror… and Graveyard Rats excels in exactly that. Following on from Lot 36, this is a suspense-driven story that takes its time to set up the urgency and desperation of our main character’s situation, taking its time before thrusting him into terrifying situations. Once it does delve into the depths of its story, there’s horrifying imagery aplenty and it’s absolutely glorious. The walls close in on our lead (both literally and figuratively) and it becomes a brilliant display of claustrophobic horror. The slow pace allows the short to really earn its ending, one that is terrifying for multiple reasons.
The claim to fame for this short is the use of practical effects. The ‘monsters’ that show up in this short look incredible, and most importantly, look real. The makeup, puppeteering and practical effects work to really enhance the effectiveness of the horror by having you believe these unreal beings could very well be real. Accompanying the visuals, there’s an eerie score that sends chills down your spine in every instance.
In the end, Graveyard Rats is dark, gritty and damn intense. A suspense-driven narrative and terrifying scenes of claustrophobic horror make this one of the best of the anthology.
The Autopsy – David Prior
Being directed by David Prior is one thing, but it’s the David S. Goyer writing credit that really got me excited for this one, and for very good reason. The Autopsy is, for me, the best short of the anthology. It’s the most well-written, most compelling and features one of the best payoffs. Not since the ending of Saw (2004) have I been so pleased by a horror film’s payoff. Yes, that’s probably a hyperbole, but the statement stands nonetheless. It even features some top-notch cinematography, highlighted by a few key scene transitions that are smooth and fun.
As time goes on, it gets more and more eerie and chilling until it reaches that phenomenal, brutal climax. But before we get there, we’re subjected to a duo of incredible performances from veteran actors F. Murray Abraham and Glynn Turman. These two wonderful performers put on an acting clinic, getting us wholly invested in their characters and really selling us on the history they have. I really want to gloat about the finale because I absolutely adored it. It’s right up my alley, but I can’t really talk about it since it’ll spoil the twist surprise.
In the end, The Autopsy is about as intelligent as they come, cementing itself as an instant classic. It’s gripping from beginning to end, delves deep into the world of gruesome horror and is the peak of this fantastic anthology.
The Outside – Ana Lily Amirpour
Up until this point in the anthology, we’ve had three slow, suspense-driven narratives that feel unique but are largely of the same style of horror. The Outside breaks tradition by presenting a narrative that’s less scary and terrifying, and more uncomfortable and disturbing. It’s haunting in its own right, making fine use of confronting and unsettling close-ups of characters, but it felt lacking in terms of genuine terror.
I likened this short to watching a pimple-popping video. It’s fascinating at first, then gets weirder and more disturbing until you feel like you need to look away. That’s the effect of this short, and it’s certainly by design, but it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. Usually I respond quite positively to something that ebbs on the more disturbing side, like a Brand New Cherry Flavour, but this one went a tad too far in the ‘uncomfortable’ side of things.
In the end, The Outside feels a bit like a Goosebumps novel in its premise and execution. There’s some neat moments of quite unsettling horror throughout, but the uncomfortable nature and brutally slow pace was a little too much to bear at points. Overall, I’d say it’s effective in what it sets out to do and sticks to its guns right to the end, it just didn’t hit as well for me.
Pickman’s Model – Keith Thomas
It wouldn’t be a horror anthology without the work of H. P. Lovecraft. Pickman’s Model kicks off a duo of Lovecraft adaptations, presenting yet another carefully-paced narrative that unfolds to the sound of a ticking time-bomb. I love the unpredictable nature of this story, constantly teasing something macabre but never diving in completely. It’s dripping in tension and every moment is drenched in the suspense of what will happen next. My only narrative gripe is that it could have been tightened by about 10 minutes, but it’s great nonetheless.
It’s also backed by a trio of top performances. Firstly, it’s great seeing Crispin Glover acting in something, especially in this role which seems intentionally written for him. He rides this line of coming across as both menacing and genuine, which adds layers to his character. Then there’s the lead performance from Ben Barnes, who is compelling the whole way through. I also want to mention Oriana Leman, who doesn’t have a tonne to do but it damn effective when she does show up.
In the end, Pickman’s Model is a gripping exploration of how fear impacts a man over time. Like a festering disease that you can never quite escape from. Sold by top notch performances, this is one to look out for if you’re a Lovecraft fan.
Dreams in the Witch House – Catherine Hardwicke
The second of two Lovecraft-born stories sends us to a gothic fantasy world. Dreams in the Witch House takes a while to settle into its horror tone, kicking off with a narrative that felt more mystical and fantastical than I was expecting. I do enjoy the gothic corner of the horror genre, Guillermo del Toro’s specialty, though this started a little too fantasy-driven for my liking. However despite this, I was never too concerned since the groundwork for some chilling horror was set up from the beginning.
As time goes on and the sheer terror of the narrative kicks into gear, it all just got better and better. I wish we got more time to spend in this other dimension as the presence of Keziah Mason is haunting, but what we did get was great. Any scene with Keziah is definitely the highlight as her character design and menacing demeanour induces a great deal of terror. It’s also a credit to Lize Johnston, who has a number of ‘monster’ roles throughout this anthology. Some disturbing scenes towards the end elevate the short and bring the story to a neat close.
In the end, Dreams in the Witch House is by no means my favourite in the anthology, but there’s enough to love about it. Performances from Rupert Grint and Ismael Cruz Cordova are nothing to write home about, but if you’re up for some light gothic fantasy, this’ll do the trick.
The Viewing – Panos Cosmatos
Having seen the drug-trip that was Panos Cosmatos‘ Mandy (2018), I knew what to expect from The Viewing, and that’s exactly what we got. This is about as ‘Panos Cosmatos’ as a Panos Cosmatos horror can get. Unfortunately, that’s both where my praise and criticism stems from. Firstly, this is a visual spectacle in every sense of the word. Every scene is drenched in a warm orange glow with lens-flare galore, and it’s absolutely glorious. There’s no questioning that this retro 70s aesthetic and electric score is brilliant – creating the feeling like you’re deep in a drug trip – but that’s almost all it has to offer.
This is where the idea of style over substance comes into play. Much like how I couldn’t get into the story of Mandy early on, it’s the same situation here. The very loose narrative that lines the first two thirds of this short didn’t grab me at all. I struggled to connect with the characters and had absolutely no grasp on where the story was heading. There’s mystery and a shady nature to Peter Weller’s character, but it was too much of a slog. That being said, it does take things to the extreme in the final 15 minutes to produce some cool scenes, but it’s too little too late.
In the end, The Viewing is definitely an acquired taste – one that won’t please most people. In terms of the visuals and the score this is an undisputed work of art, successfully evoking the feeling of a trippy drug-fuelled misadventure. But in terms of an actual story, it’s way too dry and uneventful to be engaging.
The Murmuring – Jennifer Kent
If ever there was a recipe for a surefire horror hit, it’s Jennifer Kent + Essie Davis + Andrew Lincoln + Guillermo del Toro. The Murmuring is by far the most traditional horror story in this anthology, and it’s incredibly well put together. Jennifer Kent once again proves her brilliance at crafting chilling horror events, evoking a similar vibe to The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and her own work, The Babadook (2013). From the get-go there’s a spine-chilling atmosphere that sticks around for every single minute. It’s haunting and terrifying even when there’s nothing objectively scary on screen. The tone and eerie vibe is set up so well that you don’t need ghosts or jump-scares to induce terror.
This may only run for an hour, but there’s so much story and implied history packed in that it feels like I’ve spent multiple hours in this world with these characters. Just goes to show how an effective and efficient use of runtime can go a long way. Then there’s the remarkable performances from both Essie Davis and Andrew Lincoln who exhibit a grand amount of chemistry, making their relationship seem wonderfully authentic. They contribute to what is an emotional character drama inside of a chilling horror spectacle.
In the end, you couldn’t ask for a better way to close out this anthology than with The Murmuring. It’s a classic ghost story that goes deep into its characters and utilises trauma as its central theme. Australia’s own Jennifer Kent and Essie Davis combine to create another must-see horror classic.