In his introduction to The Outside, the fourth episode of his carefully curated new anthology horror spectacular, creator Guillermo del Toro describes television as “An electronic cabinet of curiosities, blurring the line between what is outside and what is inside. What we are and what we are told we should be.”
Not only is this an excellent primer for the themes of the individual episode itself, it deftly summarises exactly what Cabinet Of Curiosities is all about. Del Toro has long explored similar themes within his work, juxtaposing the horrors of the outside world with personal fantasy in Pan’s Labyrinth and emphasizing togetherness and overcoming technical and societal barriers to find a connection in Pacific Rim and The Shape of Water.
The eight individual tales presented by the Netflix series are, as the best horror stories are, all directly representative of their characters’ internal struggles; their nightmares, guilt, grief, and secrets made manifest. In The Autopsy, a doctor plagued with terminal cancer finds himself once again mortally taken over by an extra-terrestrial parasite in an undeniable masterpiece of cosmic body horror. Similarly, both Lot 36 and Graveyard Rats see their protagonists fall foul of their greed and malice through the waking of a malevolent outside force. It is clear from the thematic nuances of each episode that del Toro handpicked these writers and directors in line with his signature flavour of fear.
Perhaps less immediately obvious, nestled within this collection of disparate stories, is the deliberate celebration of diverse stories – specifically female stories. A brief glance over the director’s body of work proves beyond doubt that this is another area where Guillermo del Toro’s passions lie. In a genre and industry that has typically been ignorant of at best — and downright exploited women, people of colour, and other marginalized groups at worst, del Toro’s films conversely shine as a beacon of stories that put them both in front of and behind the camera. Cabinet of Curiosities then serves less as a vehicle for passing the baton and more so hoisting female directors, writers, and narratives onto his shoulders to help them wield it.
Best established in The Outside and The Murmuring, directors Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night) and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) respectively return to themes from their filmographies to deliver beautifully executed tales intrinsic to the female experience.
The former opens to a scene familiar to many of us: protagonist Stacey (Kate Micucci), alone and anxious as darkness envelops her home, afraid the bumps in the night prove someone is in there with her. She faces alienation from the glamorous women at her bank job that makes her — perceived as conventionally unattractive — shrink, only to walk alone into the woods with a shotgun and shoot down a duck. Stacey kills, guts, and taxidermies the creature for a Secret Santa gift with a raw competence and care that could call into question the validity of her earlier fear but doesn’t. Despite the affection and reassurance of her husband (Martin Starr), Stacey’s gift is ridiculed at the following Christmas party, where the luxurious ‘Alo Glo’ lotion she is gifted by her colleagues instantly brings her out in a violent rash.
The message to Stacey is clear: she is, perhaps clinically, incapable of ever being accepted by these women whom she reveres and fears in equal measure. Her lack of self-esteem and social loneliness drives her to continue to use the lotion irregardless, urged on by fourth-wall-breaking TV advertisements featuring a genuinely unsettling Dan Stevens and resistant to the comfort and praise of her increasingly confused and concerned partner. Consistently depicted wearing an ironic ‘Hang in there, baby!’ nightie, Stacey effectively self-harms with the Alo Glo, reapplying and scratching ad infinitum despite the damage it is doing to her skin, psyche, and relationship. Meanwhile, her stocks of lotion mutate in the basement she originally feared housed an intruder, culminating in the formation of a faceless lotion-woman, who mirrors her movements a la Alex Garland’s Annihilation, and is eventually embraced by an overcome Stacey.
The message is, admittedly, a little on the nose. Compelled by her peers and the media to change herself to fit in, Stacey endangers herself in her desperation to be accepted both by outsiders and, ultimately, herself. The lotion woman clearly represents Stacey’s idealized version of herself and her sole female companion. However, the tight pacing, quality writing (from a teleplay by Haley Z. Boston and inspired by Emily Carroll’s Some Other Animal’s Meat webcomic), and stellar performances serve to elevate the narrative. Kate Micucci’s sympathetic portrayal, in particular, channels Shelley Duvall in The Shining (if Duvall had been the one playing Jack Torrence, complete with a bloodied axe).
Though Stacey is, in the end, transformed by her Alo Glo trials into a traditionally sexy and confident version of herself, this transformation isn’t depicted as a triumph, nor does it truly villainize her for her violent actions. We pity her, and we empathize with her. The final shot, a fourth-wall-breaking long take of Micucci mirroring co-star Stevens and staring into
the camera, is the perfect exclamation point to Ana Lily Amirpour’s typical subversion. Gazing into Stacey’s hysterical eyes, the viewer is forced to acknowledge the core responsibility of the media in Stacey’s downfall and our own part in this vicious cycle by watching her.
Conversely, Jennifer Kent’s closing episode, The Murmuring, tackles the struggles of female isolation and mental health in a far different manner. In conversation with fellow horror director Mike Flanagan (The Haunting, Midnight Mass), Guillermo del Toro stated, “The best horror for me is one where you come in feeling you’re gonna be afraid, and you end up crying.” Hearing this, the knowledge that del Toro crafted the short story the episode is based on makes all the more sense because, above all else, The Murmuring is a story about grief.
Following a married couple of notable ornithologists, the episode’s myriad shots of vast flocks of birds unavoidably call to mind the iconography of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. But the dunlins and their inexplicable murmurations — the birds’ shape-shifting flight patterns — are not the enemy here. Arguably, The Murmuring holds no enemy, no real monster to fall prey to or defeat. Nancy (Essie Davis) and Edgar (Andrew Lincoln) escape the cloisters and sexism of academia to a remote island and its country house to study the dunlins, but they cannot escape their own problems. Plagued by faltering sleep, poor mental health, and an empty marriage bed, the work that brought the two together begins to drive them apart. Though Nancy begins to hear and later see ghosts occupying the halls of the house, which
do provide several quality jumps scares, the real horror here stems not from the supernatural. Instead, it sprouts from the deterioration of the couple’s relationship in the wake of the death of their daughter.
Both lead actors deliver understated, emotional performances to support this delicate premise, with Edgar — much like Stacey’s husband in The Outside — helpless to support his unresponsive wife through the horror of a mother losing her biological child and distressed by her mental decline and increasing obsession with ghosts he cannot perceive. While Nancy is the focus, the narrative does a compelling job of recognizing that there are two sides to this grief by showing that Edgar is equally struggling in his own way in a society where the effect of child loss on fathers is often minimized. Neither party is villainized for their method of dealing with their grief, even as they argue and avoid each other. The viewer, as they do for each other, only yearns to comfort them.
It is fitting that The Murmuring, as the final Curiosity of the series, ends on a note of hope. The story is, undoubtedly, tragic: Nancy eventually uncovers the history of the dead boy and his mother who haunt the house, finding that the isolation of and lack of support for the clearly mentally unwell woman spelled the family’s downfall. Rather than run from him, Nancy, who has not cried since her child died, embraces the boy and her own motherhood. Rather than confront the mother, Nancy forgives her and begins to forgive herself for the guilt and shame of her loss. Throughout the narrative, the characters repeatedly affirm that Nancy has always been fascinated with birds, which have long been associated with the deliverance of souls to the afterlife for their freedom. In her acceptance of herself and her ghosts, Nancy sets them all free and finally allows herself the chance to reconcile with her husband and heal. Cue, as del Toro predicted, the tears.
The Outside is, at heart, a cautionary tale about the beauty industry, toxic female friendships, social isolation, and self-confidence. The Murmuring, in contrast, explores the unique female experiences surrounding motherhood, mental health, marriage, and grief. Even Catherine Hardwicke’s Dreams in the Witch House, which is arguably one of the least successful Curiosities in its attempt to adapt Lovecraft by way of Twilight, raises concerns about the idealization of the women in men’s lives, as Rupert Grint’s lead essentially wastes his life searching for a version of his long dead sister that he has mistakenly built up in his head. “What we are, and what we are told we should be” are questions that have affected women ever since there was a society to influence us, and there is a certain catharsis to seeing the horror of women’s experiences portrayed on screen in this way, without the characters or creators being exploited in the manner the horror genre historically has. Through Cabinet of Curiosities, Guillermo del Toro is championing women filmmakers and their stories. Hopefully, Netflix will give this innovative show a second season to uplift diverse voices in the horror genre.
You can stream Cabinet of Curiosities exclusively on Netflix now
by Isobel Frost
Isobel (she/her) is a freelance writer and aspiring entertainment journalist from Yorkshire. She is a steadfast enjoyer of all things visual media and is guaranteed to cry at most of it. Her favourite films include Lilo & Stitch and The Lost Boys, which, if nothing else, proves she contains multitudes. You can find her on Twitter and Substack.
Categories: TV, Women Film-makers
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