PLOT: Guillermo del Toro curates eight short tales of supernatural horror, mostly from young directors.
COMMENTS: At the start of each episode, Guillermo del Toro waddles in from a pool of darkness and stands before his prop cabinet, pulling out a small item relevant to the plot of the upcoming feature and a figurine representing the episode’s director. In heavily-accented, hard-to-understand English, he chokes out a few stiff sentences about the story. Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock he is not; but fortunately, del Toro proves a much better curator than host.
Other than the esteemed Vincenzo Natali, del Toro and the producers choose mostly up-and-comers to script and direct the eight episodes. Although perhaps it shouldn’t, given del Toro’s Hollwyood pull, it comes as a small surprise that these short features are largely acting showcases. The series standout is Academy Award-winner F. Murray Abraham as a clever but understandably-weary coroner in “The Autopsy.” Tim Blake Nelson, lending an earthy believability and even a little sympathy to his bitter xenophobic caricature in “Lot 36,” is also worth a mention, while “The Outside” is entirely built around Kate Miccuci’s nerdy-but-secretly-sexy persona. Essie Davis, as a bereaved ornithologist, also carries “The Murmuring,” Jennifer Kent’s marital-drama-cum-ghost-story. Then, there are a couple of cameos to appeal to cult movie fans: Crispin Glover in “Pickman’s Model” and Peter Weller in “The Viewing.” The relative star power on display here lends respectability and brings in viewers from outside horror fandom: mainstream critics were particularly drawn to the “The Murmuring”‘s realistic depiction of a husband and wife tiptoeing around their issues while burying themselves in their studies of bird-flocking behaviors on a Bergmanesque island.
When we first saw the names attached to direct, we were salivating over the inclusion of Ana Lily Amirpour and (especially) Panos Cosmatos (as well as the prospect of Crispin Glover in an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation). Those two directors do deliver both weirdness and quality, but the other episodes are all worth watching. Even the least of them have something to offer, usually in the acting department. The Glover episode is “Pickman’s Muse.” As previously mentioned, it’s a Lovecraft adaptation of the “man is driven mad by peering into the Beyond” variety that is eerie and atmospheric, but Continue reading CHANNEL 366: GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S CABINET OF CURIOSITIES (2022)→
“Five improbable entities stuffed together into a pit of darkness. No logic, no reason, no explanation, just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the darkness.”–Rod Serling, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”
DIRECTED BY: Vincenzo Natali
FEATURING: Maurice Dean Wint, Nicole de Boer, David Hewlett, Nicky Guadagni, Andrew Miller
PLOT: Apparently selected randomly, people appear in a mysterious, abstract structure which proves to be a vast complex of interconnected cubical rooms harboring random death traps. They struggle to find answers to their predicament and escape. Their lack of trust in each other gradually begins to pose as big a threat to their survival as does the Cube itself.
Cube was shot in twenty days on a sound stage in Toronto with a budget of $350,000 (Canadian), under the auspices of the Canadian Film Center’s “First Feature Project.” CORE Digital Pictures supplied the post-production effects free of charge to show support for the Canadian film industry. It easily made its money back and has developed a cult following since.
Only one room was built for the set, although a partial second room was created to be visible through doors between rooms. Gel squares inserted over the lighted wall panels supply color changes.
All of the characters are named after prisons, and each name is alleged to have significance for their personalities and fates. Maybe it’s just a fun fan theory?
If you search the web for “industrial die holder,” you’ll see what they used for the door handles. Pick one up at the hardware store and add it to your arcane prop collection.
Cube has two sequels. Cube 2: Hypercube is basically more of the same, with new and more devious traps, while Cube Zero was an unapologetic B-movie prequel that supplied unnecessary answers to the Cube’s existence. Writer/director Natali was not involved in the sequels.
A remake, to be directed by Saman Kesh, was announced in 2015.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a claustrophobic production like Cube, our choices are narrowed down to which architectural gimmick makes the deepest impression. We might as well spoil as little as possible and select the first one, where a bald character gets diced by a fast-moving razor-wire trap. It’s all the more shocking because he’s the face featured on all the film posters. The fact that he freezes a few second before collapsing into a pile of chunky salsa just adds to the impact: it’s a Wile E. Coyote moment (and a visual pun, because the character got cubed), yet doesn’t play silly enough to lose us.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aliens or government?, prime number permutations, the edge
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cube is a great example of how a movie’s premise doesn’t need to dictate its weirdness factor. The plot is straight out of the pulp horror ghetto, but the execution is original and intriguing enough that it transcends its genre. The developments between the characters and the structure of their prison lends itself to a puzzle just tantalizing enough to lead viewers into thinking they’re right around the corner from solving it, without ever actually answering much. The end result is an engineer’s fever dream.
PLOT: Seven strangers awake in a cubical maze filled with deadly traps and work to find a way out.
WHY IT SHOULD’T MAKE THE LIST: Cube is classic cult sci-fi/horror. It’s intriguing, captivating, and smart, but follows a linear narrative and has characters with logical motivations. Some serious weirdness can be found in its ugly, recycled visuals (only two cubical rooms were built and used for the set design) and brooding ambient soundtrack, but it’s all coherent enough to stand as a firmly established vision of the bleakness of modern life. It has “weird” ambitions, but ultimately finds itself in the category of intense sci-fi, not transcendental strangeness.
COMMENTS: Cube, much to its own advantage, is quite minimalist. The setting of the film is a series of cubical rooms with distinctively ugly color palettes. Decorated with different kinds of high-tech architectural patterns and shapes, the rooms evoke conceptual mathematics, serving as a sort of pastiche of NASA blueprints or military designs. The characters are dressed identically, have no memory of how they got in the cube, and each possesses some kind of useful skill. There is a math student, a cop, a medical professional, an escape artist, an exterior designer, and an autistic young man with a penchant for solving complicated arithmetic problems in his head. The opening scene shows a nameless character who steps into a room only to meet his ill fate with a swift slice and dice, painting the floor in symmetrical pieces of his bloody corpse before we see the film’s title shot over a background of blinding white light.
The danger lurking ahead is now obvious and imminent: some of the rooms have traps, and others do not. The suspense is heightened by the ignorance of the characters; we only know as much as they do, almost nothing at all. Apparently kidnapped and held against their will, they all work together to escape the cube, only to find that their biggest threat to one another is each other. One would probably wonder how such a simple idea could ever look so cool, but the atmosphere of the movie drives it forward, forcing us to develop our own ideas about what the cube is and why it was made.
An attempt at something of an explanation starts to develop around the mid-point, and here frustration rears its ugly head. (It may also have been slightly irresponsible to cast Maurice Dean Wint as Quentin, seeing that he is the only actor in the movie that is black and he is shown to be significantly more violent and unhinged than the others). Political and personal gripes aside, the delight in watching these characters hopelessly delve into their own survival emulates from the paranoia that comes from their ignorance. Plus, the gory deaths don’t hamper the entertainment value one bit. Face melting acid traps, wires that cut through skin and bone, sound-activated blades—this particular trap is the movie’s riveting and suspenseful center piece—and an anger-prone cop (a relevant touch in lieu of recent national tragedies) provide ample intensity, violence, and a sinister atmosphere that make Cube a force to be reckoned with. Its near immediate elevation to cult status was no surprise, as DVD sales and rentals (remember rentals?) were much higher than usual for a low budget Canadian movie with a cast of unknowns.
Aside from the suspense rooted in escaping bloody doom, there is a plethora of mind candy along the way, most of it rooted in mathematics and philosophy. Rooms are numbered in sequenced patterns of exponents of prime numbers, and while the math wizard works toward finding a way past the traps, she makes chicken scratches in the shiny metal doors of the cubes using buttons off her shirt. It’s here when the audience is treated to a creepy musical palette of hushed whispers and echoing warped synthesizers, as they fall further down into a bleak realm of chaotic peril. Whenever they make progress towards finding a way out, new problems arise, whether it is a miscalculation or anger and frustration stemming from the ever-growing exhaustion of the subjects. Cube twists and turns through suspicions and possible explanations. Did aliens build the cube, or was it the government? Is there a way out or are they all supposed to die? All of it is punctuated by violent gore, a catharsis for life’s impending ambiguities.
Symbolically, life inside the Cube is no different than life outside of it, full of unanswered questions, meaningless death, and a kind of endless striving towards a future that might not ever happen. Some of its more generic ideas stem from the dangers of a military-industrial complex, human purpose, and the endless grind of working towards nothing/death. There is nihilism, hope, confusion, betrayal and even compassion to be found inside of the cube, evidenced by the varying attitudes and behaviors of the poor souls who are trapped inside. One particularly powerful component of the intended symbolic gesture comes from the character Worth (David Hewlett) when he is reluctant to leave the cube. “What is out there?” inquires Leaven (Nicole de Boer). There is an intense close up of a whiteout, the apparent exit, as he replies: “Boundless human stupidity.”
PLOT: Two losers must learn to abide each others’ company when the entire universe
outside their house disappears, leaving them alone in a vast field of nothingness.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The outlandish premise and accompanying visuals make this speculative buddy comedy mildly weird; it’s also an above average independent effort. Nothing lacks that certain something, however, that would put it over the top and turn it into one of the best weird movies of all time. Don’t feel sorry for talented director Vincenzo Natali, though; he has other films which have a shot at making the List.
COMMENTS: Apropos of Nothing, this is a difficult film to review. In the first place, the title invites awful puns (I was tempted to give it a negative review just so I could write “Nothing could be better than this”). The more serious issue with reviewing the movie is that, since it’s set in a literal nowhere with only two characters on screen for the vast majority of the time, its success depends entirely on the ingenuity of the script, and it’s hard to critique without giving away too many spoilers (I almost wrote that it “leaves us with Nothing to discuss.”) Nothing is a celebration of the co-dependent friendship between Andrew, an agoraphobe who has inherited a ramshackle home located underneath the junction of two elevated interstates, and Dave, an abrasive loser who needs a place to stay and someone who can tolerate his company for more than five minutes at a time. As the film starts they have set up a comfortable symbiosis, with Andrew supplying a pad nerdy bachelor pad with cable TV and lots of video games, and Dave taking care of tasks like grocery shopping that would be impossible for his neurotic, homebound friend. Things quickly devolve into chaos through a series of unlikely disasters that result in the harried Andrew and Dave wishing the world would just disappear—which, incredibly, it does. This unexplained event leaves the two alone in a vast field of blank white that stretches off to the horizon, with only whatever junk is left inside their house for provisions. The inventive script milks this minimalist idea for all it’s worth, exploring every aspect of Andrew and Dave’s relationship, and throwing in a new metaphysical twist to keep things moving along just when it seems like it’s exhausted all the possibilities nothing has to offer. Director Vincenzo Natali delights in exploring the uses of “white-screen” technology to frame his scenes, whether its in the beginning when Dave is afraid to step off the front porch and into the void, or at the very end when the advancing nothingness has left him only the barest of visuals to work with. Thespians Hewlett and Miller are appealing in their roles, though neither is a born comedian. The writers, Andrew Lowery and Miller, seem more interested in coming up with new ways to stretch the premise than in making the audience laugh; there are few obvious gags or punchlines. But by pushing the idea of nothing as far as it can go, removing all extraneous characters and sets and stripping the drama down to just two actors, Nothing comes across as quite experimental, like the solution to a writer’s challenge to create a story “about nothing.” It resembles a lighthearted, unpretentious riff on Waiting for Godot. I wouldn’t necessarily make a big deal about Nothing, but its worth checking out to see how a movie can still entertain using only two characters acting against a blank screen.
Nothing was Vincenzo Natali’s third film, after the existential sci-fi puzzler Cube (1997) and Cypher (2002), an overlooked thriller built around the concept of brainwashing. Natali has given David Hewlett at least a small role in each of the four features he has directed. (Andrew Miller also appeared in Cube).