Guillermo del Toro Opens His ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’

When Guillermo del Toro was a child in Guadalajara, Mexico, he used to stay up late watching TV with his older brother. One night they happened upon an episode of the 1960s science fiction anthology series “The Outer Limits” called “The Mutant.” In it, Warren Oates plays an astronaut who gets caught in radioactive rain on another planet.

“There’s a moment where he removes his goggles and his eyes are as big as the goggles,” del Toro recalled in a recent video interview. “And I started screaming. My brother put me to bed. You could say the rest of my life has been a counterphobic reaction to the fear I felt seeing that episode.”

Today, del Toro, 58, elicits screams from others, with movies like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and TV series like “The Strain.” And now he has his own anthology series, “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.” The first season, which debuts Tuesday on Netflix, is a collection of eight hourlong horror tales, each from a different director. Del Toro handpicked the eight directors featured in the first season: some of the world’s brightest horror minds, including Ana Lily Amirpour (“The Bad Batch”), Panos Cosmatos (“Mandy”) and Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”).

Two episodes are based on original stories written by del Toro, who created the series. Another two are based on classic tales from the macabre master H.P. Lovecraft. All have sky-high production value.

“I got to spend all that Netflix money,” Amirpour said in a recent video interview; her wickedly funny chapter, “The Outside,” tells the story of a woman (Kate Micucci) who develops an unhealthy relationship with a new beauty product.

“With Guillermo, when you work with someone who has that level of power, you can really thrive and make something cool,” she added.

Del Toro entered the project as a curator and a fan, with the goal of highlighting stories, storytellers and filmmakers he loves.

“I was hoping to select some stories that I like, that have not been adapted, or have not been adapted with a very protected production environment,” he said. “And I wanted to find directors that I was curious about. I wanted to almost collect and curate a group of directors and stories and then give them all the support and freedom, final cut, the chance to feel that the resources were there.”

There were major challenges. In practical terms, the “Cabinet” really contains eight one-hour films, with settings including rustic 1909 Massachusetts (“Pickman’s Model,” directed by Keith Thomas) and a late-1970s version of future shock (“The Viewing,” Cosmatos). The directors were essentially their own showrunners.

“This really does feel like a movie of mine,” Amirpour said. “It was a whole and total creation, from having my hand on the script to completion. It felt so completely and totally mine.”

Multiple cinematographers and editors worked on the series, but there was only one industrious production designer, the del Toro regular Tamara Deverell (“Nightmare Alley,” “The Strain”), who embraced the task of designing everything, such as a giant animatronic rat (for “The Graveyard Rats,” Vincenzo Natali) and a sketchy storage facility (for “Lot 36,” Guillermo Navarro).

In a video interview, Deverell recalled that “Cabinet” had reused a set from del Toro’s 2021 film “Nightmare Alley” for both “Lot 36” and “Graveyard Rats.” She also noted the complexities of carrying out the vision of eight different filmmakers. But she’s not complaining. She sees del Toro as the perfect collaborator, an artist who knows that storytelling is visual as well as verbal.

“He understands space and things like ceiling heights and square footage and the shapes of things in a way that a lot of directors don’t,” Deverell said. “He makes it so easy. The set is of equal importance as the actors or the story. It’s part of the same world that he’s trying to create.”

Del Toro is an avid collector of books and comics; as he spoke from his office in Santa Monica, Calif., stacks and stacks of volumes loomed in the background. He’s a particular fan of anthologies, those that come between two covers — the first book he ever bought with his own money was a horror anthology edited by the science fiction writer Forrest J. Ackerman — and onscreen. When he wasn’t screaming at “The Outer Limits,” he was watching “The Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “One Step Beyond,” “Night Gallery” and “Ghost Story,” among others.

“They were my favorite things to watch,” he said. “It’s the same way I loved reading short stories, more than any other form. I just find them immersive and self-contained and incredibly attractive. If you come to the library of my horror wing, most of what I collect is anthologies.”

He worships the material and its history, a fact that isn’t lost on the actor Tim Blake Nelson. Nelson, also featured in del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” and the coming “Pinocchio” movie, is the star of “Lot 36,” the story of a racist scavenger who swoops in on delinquent customers’ storage containers and sells their belongings. Yes, he receives a ghoulish — and many tentacled — comeuppance.

To Nelson, del Toro’s passion for the macabre pushes his work beyond the realm of genre.

“I believe that Guillermo’s reverence for horror is so deep that it’s no longer horror,” he said in a video interview. “You’re dealing with someone who’s able to see the macabre as reality, not fear-driven fantasy. You no longer think of it as occult or genre; you think of it as reality, and that makes it all the more terrifying.”

Del Toro was originally supposed to direct an episode, but the pandemic delayed production of both “Nightmare Alley” and “Pinocchio.” So, instead, he offered to host. At the beginning of each installment, he saunters out of the darkness up to what appears to be an elaborate model mansion with drawers.

He pulls out a miniature ivory figurine of each director and offers an introduction. (Originally, cabinets of curiosities contained anatomical specimens, talismans and the like, all reflecting the curator’s tastes and instinct for showmanship.) These introductions play like the classic openings of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

But if “Cabinet of Curiosities” has a spiritual forbear, it is someone more sinister. The writer H.P. Lovecraft, who lived from 1890 to 1937, has inspired memorable movies (“Re-Animator”) and television (“Lovecraft Country”). The episodes of “Cabinet” his stories inspired are “Dreams in the Witch House,” directed by Catherine Hardwicke, and “Pickman’s Model,” about a painter (Crispin Glover) with dark and devilish muses. (“Pickman’s Model” was also the basis of a 1971 “Night Gallery” episode that gave this reporter childhood nightmares.)

Known for what del Toro called “overwrought prose and arcane adjectives,” Lovecraft is also terrifying in his dark view of humanity.

“He was cosmically misanthropic,” del Toro said. “He was the outsider of the outsiders. It’s very hard to imagine anyone overtaken by more fear. His idea was that the cosmos is malevolent by the mere notion of how large it is. You cannot encompass it, and that alone is madness. That resonates through the ages.”

Del Toro, by all accounts, is no Lovecraft. He is a jovial guy and supportive colleague who is nonetheless drawn to the darkness. He is on the side of the artists, and the monsters. He’s the happy frightener.

“He’s never imposing his will on anybody,” Amirpour said. “He’s just trying to help you find the best way to do what you’re trying to do. What truly sets him apart is his generosity of spirit. I’m ruined now. It’s like having courtside seats and then having to go sit somewhere else.”


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