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DIRECTED BY: Ana Lily Amirpour, Panos Cosmatos, Catherine Hardwicke, Jennifer Kent, Vincenzo Natali, Guillermo Navarro, David Prior, Keith Thomas
FEATURING: Guillermo del Toro, F. Murray Abraham, Kate Micucci, Tim Blake Nelson, Essie Davis, David Hewlett, Ben Barnes, Rupert Grint, Peter Weller, Crispin Glover, Eric André, Charlyne Yi, Andrew Lincoln
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 has perhaps drawn more attention for Glover’s puzzling attempt to reconstruct a vanished Massachusetts accent—to me, it sounds like Curly Howard returned from Hell as a baritone (“my great grandmuddas great grandmuddah, Lavinia… a sauceress. Boined at da stake”). Personally, I kind of like Glover’s “accent out of space”—it gives the character an alien feel—but it is a shame that it’s become the main talking point in what was otherwise a solid horror outing. “Pickman” is certainly superior to “Dreams in the Witch House,” the other Lovecraft adaptation, which is fine but uninspiring, with a human-faced CGI rat that’s supposed to be—scary?—and an action-oriented finale that goes on for too long. If action and effects are your thing, Natali’s “Graveyard Rats” is the better choice, with some truly cool-looking monsters (Rat Kings and half-skeletons, oh my!) and a novel, claustrophobic setting in the warrens underneath a graveyard. The opener, “Lot 36,” directed by del Toro’s regular cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, is a competent but obvious occult tale with an ironic ending, elevated by Tim Blake Nelson’s rugged performance. Judging by IMDB audience ratings, “The Autopsy” (starring F. Murray Abraham, directed by David “The Empty Man” Prior, is the series’ best offering. I concur. Abraham is magnetic and the finale is clever and truly gruesome. It’s as much sci-fi as horror, but that helps it stand out from the pack.
Although “The Autopsy” turns out to be the surprise winner, the two contributions we originally hyped are the series’ next best offerings. Amirpour‘s “The Outside” is the only black comedy of the bunch. As previously mentioned, it’s a showcase for comedienne Kate Miccuci, who plays a socially awkward, ugly duckling outsider who turns to a beauty cream in hopes of fitting in with her glamorous coworkers (who are all addicted to the stuff). The goo makes her break out in a skin-peeling rash, but she keeps slathering it on nonetheless, against the increasingly alarmed protestations of her devoted husband. What follows may be nothing but a hallucination in the mind of a woman desperate to fit in to society’s ideas of beauty. The ending is suitably awkward. The beauty industry is an easy target for satire, but Armirpour and Miccuci nail it, with enough of an offbeat sensibility (and some very strange imagery) to make “The Outside” a success.
Panos Cosmatos’ “The Viewing” will not surprise anyone who knows the director’s work, although it will prove quite the challenge to outsiders. The director’s trademark sleek geometric ultramodernism, immersive New Age synthesizers, and hazy 1980s VHS ambiance suffuses every frame. Icon Peter Weller is perfectly cast the reclusive billionaire who summons a group of experts—a musician, an astrophysicist, a cynical novelist, and a psychic—to his glowing neon mansion for a tasting of rare Scotch and an experimental cocaine blend, followed by a viewing of a strange artifact. There’s a lot of talk in this one, but Cosmatos keeps the dialogue interesting as craggy-but-confident Weller sits, arms spread wide, at the head of a circular couch like an emperor holding court, exuding a sense of capitalist menace. Like other episodes in the series, the final result evokes Lovecraft, but this time with a spicy psychedelic spin.
Del Toro delivers exactly what he promises in “Cabinet of Curiosities,” with high production values throughout and something to please everyone. Even the weakest episodes have worthy aspects, and the series will please supernatural horror fans, seekers of the weird, and even casual viewers. Recommended to just about anyone.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…those able to tune in to its super weird frequency will likely find it among their favorite entries.”–Ben Travers, Indiewire (on “The Autopsy”)