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SYFY WIRE Guillermo del Toro

How Guillermo del Toro's team built a 'Cabinet of Curiosities' full of hand-picked horror

The new Netflix horror series is a showcase of the Oscar-winning director's knack for curation.

By Matthew Jackson
Guillermo del Toro and the Cabinet of Curiosities

Guillermo del Toro is a born curator. You can see it in the rooms of his famous "Bleak House," designed to hold all his many interests and collectibles accumulated over the course of his entire life. You can see it in his work as a producer in bringing feature films like Mama and Antlers to the screen. And now, you can see it in Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities, a new Netflix original series that brings the director's hand-picked horrors to life through the eyes of eight of genre's finest directors. 

Del Toro introduces each episode of the new series, which debuts on Netflix today as part of a four-night Halloween streaming event, acting as a sort of modern-day Rod Serling by walking viewers through the themes and concerns of each episode, then introducing the director for that hour's story. Watching him front-and-center, guiding you through a selection of filmmaking talents that he personally assembled, is the culmination of years of dreaming and work that began around the time Del Toro was releasing his creature masterpiece The Shape of Water. The wait was long, but according to Del Toro's longtime producing partner J. Miles Dale, the years of development made the curation of the series all t more refined.

"It was really kind of doing eight movies at once, to be perfectly honest, which gets a little tricky with eight essentially feature directors," Dale told SYFY WIRE. "So it was good that we had some runway with the scripts to at least be able to get them in presentable shape, where we could give them to the directors, because we really wanted this to be a director-driven process, where the directors' voices could be heard. In television, it's not normally like that. So, we curated the directors carefully, matched them to the material the best we could, and then really supported them the best that we could so that they could deliver their vision of that particular little film. And having our feature team, our production design team, costume design, visual effects, it was a great support net for directors."

Those directors range from relative newcomers to feature filmmaking, like The Empty Man's David Prior, to seasoned pros like Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke, to longtime Del Toro friends and collaborators like Guillermo Navarro and Vincenzo Natali, who first worked with Del Toro on Splice more than a decade ago. 

"I had the good fortune to be in the orbit of Guillermo del Toro for many years, Natali explained. "And every once in a while, he'll out of the blue call me and say, 'I've got this thing,' and this is the first one that actually happened, which is wonderful. And he came to me with a list of stories. On that list was 'Graveyard Rats.' That was absolutely the one that I gravitated towards."

One of two stories airing on the first night of Cabinet of Curiosities releases — the other is the Navarro-directed "Lot 36," based on an original Del Toro story — "Graveyard Rats" is based on the short story of the same name by Henry Kuttner, and follows an unsavory cemetery caretaker who tries to keep up with his graverobbing on the side while dealing with a growing rat problem in the tunnels beneath the graveyard.

"It's the story Guillermo says scared him more than any other as a child, but I wasn't familiar with it, Natali said of "Graveyard Rats."

He continued, "But I am an unabashed fan of the EC Comics, and of all that came after, in particular, Bernie Wrightson is probably one of my favorite comic book artists. And I saw this as a way of expressing my appreciation and love for those comics, because it really fits into that paradigm beautifully. So, that's really what excited me."

"Graveyard Rats" is one of several episodes of Cabinet of Curiosities based on some of Del Toro's favorite works of horror fiction, including two tales by H.P. Lovecraft and a story by comics creator Emily Carroll, whose work formed the basis for Ana Lily Amirpour's episode, "The Outside." But even within the chosen source material, the filmmakers were given lots of room to play. Hardwick and writer Mika Watkins, for example, spent a lot of time developing a new version of Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch House," giving it an updated feel while keeping the classic setting and many of the same characters. 

Dreams in the Witch House Cabinet of Curiosities NETFLIX PRESS

"I just kind of embraced that, let's just go with it and make it richer, make [Mika's] adaptation, her inspiration even richer and make the women more interesting," Hardwicke said. "So we just dove in. And then of course with Guillermo's team, the creature designer, the production designer, the costume designer and cinematographer, you have just beautiful layers and texture and richness that you can really be creative with. So we really had fun with that layering in all the other elements."

Then there's Mandy and Beyond the Black Rainbow director Panos Cosmatos, who had a chance to adapt a story for the series, but instead chose to craft "The Viewing," an original story co-written by Mandy's Aaron Stewart-Ahn which dives deep into a drug-fueled trip to the home of an eccentric billionaire. Every filmmaker was supported in their particular vision for the series, and speaking to SYFY WIRE, Cosmatos said he felt particularly supported in being allowed to make something new. 

"One of my requests in coming on the project was that I'd be allowed to use my own cinematographer and my own composer, because those two things are just very important to me," Cosmatos said. "So they were extremely accommodating and nice, and they let me work with one of my favorite DPs, Michael Ragen, and they let me use Daniel Lopatin to do the score, who I'd always wanted to work with. It was important to me that it be one of my films. I don't think of it as one of my proper features, but it was important to me that it be part of my world."

The Viewing Cabinet of Curiosities NETFLIX PRESS

Though Del Toro was hard at work on post-production on his film Nightmare Alley as the series was shooting, Dale noted that the Cabinet of Curiosities creator was always deeply invested in work on the series, from the casting to the post-production visual effects and, of course, the creature design. A lifelong fan of monsters and a devoted creature designer himself, Del Toro made sure that each episode of the series had its own distinctive inhuman creations, from a witch who looks like she's carved of wood to a slimy monster birthed from a stone to a demon locked away for decades inside a human shell. Much of what you see in the finished product was achieved with practical effects, including the creatures and the sets, which meant that Dale — who was Unit Production Manager as well as Executive Producer -- and his crew were constantly shifting gears. 

"We were changing things every three to four weeks," Dale said. "So, whole new cast, whole new bunch of sets, whole new everything. So there was no kind of gliding on this one. We were spending two months building sets that we would use for three days. So the production side of this was made a little more challenging just by the volume of things that had to turn around so quickly at a feature film level."

Though Cabinet of Curiosities represents a diverse, ever-changing horror landscape where each hour gives viewers something different, through it all there was one constant: Del Toro's vision for a show that highlights the breadth of talent in horror right now, and his enthusiasm for showcasing other filmmakers.

"He is a magical character, as much as any one of his creatures," Natali said of Del Toro. "And I feel like he is the great impresario of the Cinema Fantastique, and I think he plays an important role as somebody who can articulate what that is, in a way that very few have in the past. He really understands the cultural importance of horror, and science fiction, and fantasy, and myth, in our present day world. I think that he's elevated the genre in that way, in a very protective way, like a museum curator would. And I feel very honored, and lucky, to somehow have been caught up in that net that he's cast."

The first two episodes of Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities arrived today on Netflix. New episodes will arrive, two at a time, each day for the rest of the week, concluding on Friday. 

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