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‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ shows off Guillermo del Toro’s eclectic vision of horror

<i>Courtesy Netflix</i><br/>Rupert Grint in
Courtesy Netflix
Rupert Grint in "Dreams In The Witch House

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

As a horror maestro and auteur, Guillermo del Toro has earned the right to his moment in the spotlight — in this case presiding on camera, Alfred Hitchcock style, over “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.” It’s only too bad that this eight-episode Netflix horror anthology lacks the verve of the director’s cinematic work, with episodes that feature monstrous special effects but half-baked stories that don’t really draw blood.

Netflix will try something a bit different by premiering back-to-back episodes of “Cabinet of Curiosities” over four successive nights, which turns out to be more inventive, or at least distinctive, than most of the stories. That includes a pair of original ideas from del Toro himself, “Lot 36” and “The Murmuring,” as well as two by horror author H.P. Lovecraft, “Dreams in the Witch House” and “Pickman’s Model,” logically grouped together on the third night.

As HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” demonstrated, transferring Lovecraft coherently to the screen represents a formidable challenge, which basically encapsulates the frustrations overall. The tone is certainly macabre enough, with a strong lineup of actors, including Tim Blake Nelson, F. Murray Abraham, Glynn Turman, Ben Barnes, Rupert Grint, and Andrew Lincoln. Del Toro has also handpicked the various directors, reflecting an eclectic range of projects and styles.

The stories, however, feel slight, with intriguing premises that don’t necessarily pay off as much as simply run out of time — neutralizing the impact of the individual filmmakers, and creating an overall impression of an exercise that despite its promise proves pretty consistently disappointing.

The episode that perhaps most exemplifies that, “The Viewing,” certainly starts well enough, with a wealthy recluse (Peter Weller) assembling a group of professionals accomplished within different spheres to see a strange artifact in his possession. After a night of heavy chemical consumption, what’s finally unveiled proves a sizable letdown, a pattern “Cabinet” reenacts time and again.

By contrast, the most intriguing, or at least most “Black Mirror”-like title, is “The Outside,” which stars Kate Micucci as a socially awkward woman who yearns to be accepted by her snotty female coworkers, only to find that the fix-your-life products she sees advertised on TV (Dan Stevens has an amusing cameo as the spokesman) come with significant side effects.

There’s obviously a long and rich history of anthologies in this genre — “The Twilight Zone,” oft-revived and imitated but never equaled, remaining the gold standard — but that merely raises the bar in terms of expectations. Ditto for del Toro’s involvement, with his resume that includes the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water,” a genuine masterpiece in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and a distinctively imaginative visual style that characterizes even his lesser films.

There is, to be fair, inevitably a hit-miss quality to the format. Yet even with those disclaimers, “Cabinet of Curiosities” feels stocked with stories lacking in heft — throwing open its doors with del Toro’s buoyant enthusiasm, and too often finding its shelves looking a little bare.

“Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities” premieres October 25-28 on Netflix.

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