Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities

The Revulsion Should Not Be Televised: On ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities’

H.P. Lovecraft’s masterful method of telling a horror story eludes “Pickman’s Model” and “The Dreams in the Witch House” from Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.

Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities
25 October 2022 (US)

I once asked H. P. Lovecraft biographer S. T. Joshi about film adaptations of Lovecraft’s horror stories, since Joshi had written the introduction to The Lurker in the Lobby (2006), a book on that very subject. The word Joshi used for the majority of adaptations was “dreadful”, and it easy to agree with him. Over the years, I’ve sorted film and television adaptations of Lovecraft’s tales into two categories: Those that aren’t good, and those that are good but aren’t Lovecraft. 

Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) is the perfect example of the second category. It’s a terrific film, but it generates a lot of its fun and chills by breaking with the source material, Lovecraft’s five-part story “Herbert West: Reanimator”. The same goes for Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond (1986), John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994), and a host of other films. They’re all worth the watch, but they discard that very specifically Lovecraftian element of the fiction, maybe because it’s too problematic to put on the screen. 

Throughout the stories of Lovecraft are things that his narrators glimpse but don’t really see, presences they sense but don’t contact directly, and creatures that they think they beheld but aren’t entirely certain. In Lovecraft’s story “Pickman’s Model”, the narrator never actually sees a monster that his artist friend used as the subject for his painting; he only sees the painting and then, in the climax, a photo. In “The Dreams in the Witch House”, the main character encounters a 17th-century ‘witch’ and other terrors and is transported to other worlds, but he can’t fully distinguish these experiences from dreams. 

Lovecraft aficionado Guillermo del Toro presides over adaptations of these two stories in his Netflix series, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, an eight-episode horror anthology show with the famed director introducing each show. Lovecraft has been adapted for television before–and more specifically, both of these stories were made into episodes for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and Mick Garris’ Masters of Horror–but it’s good to have a real fan putting his seal of approval on these dramatizations. The problem is that any good director–or any good storyteller, for that matter–will follow the rule of telling rather than showing, a rule that runs up against Lovecraft’s style of horror. How do you show the thing that is only glimpsed, or depict something that a character senses, but is ultimately unable to even imagine, much less perceive? 

Directors for Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, Keith Thomas for “Pickman’s Model” and Catherine Hardwicke for “The Dreams in the Witch House”, decide to lean hard into the showing, especially Thomas, whose episode is crowded with intensely explicit and disturbing imagery. The results are very watchable for present-day horror fans and among the best and most imaginative episodes in the series, but as with Re-Animator, they don’t adhere to the admittedly hard-to-film technique of their sources. Which, in a way, makes them interesting on their own.

Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” is a neat little campfire tale, which ends with an artist discovering that his fellow painter who depicts cannibalistic horrors on canvas isn’t using his imagination. Unlike other Lovecraft stories, this discovery doesn’t drive the narrator insane (the standard Lovecraft protagonist has lost his mind by the story’s last act). In the version presented by Netflix, viewers are served an intriguing question surrounded by a lot of gore: What does viewing disturbing imagery do to the psyche? It’s very relevant, since this is a horror show with plenty of disturbing imagery. So what is it doing to us as we watch? Is it possible that we won’t be able to leave these terrifying scenes behind when we stop watching? 

I can’t be the only one who’s had heaps of childhood nightmares after viewing programs like John Newland’s The Next Step Beyond or D.J. MacHale and Ned Kandel’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?–and that was just the stuff that was on network television! So I feel some sympathy for William Thurber (Ben Barnes), the protagonist of “Pickman’s Model” who finds the lurid paintings of fellow art student Richard Upton Pickman (Crispin Glover, doing a Bahston accent that Seth Meyers would definitely have something to say about) maddeningly scary and unable to get out of his mind. 

Pickman’s roots go back to a New England witch whose convocations and rites he is fond of painting, even when they depict mutilations and cannibalism. Just beholding Pickman’s work fills Thurber with an overwhelming dread, giving him nightmare-like visions when asleep or awake. Thurber’s attempts to live the life of an upper-class New Englander and court the well-bred Rebecca (Oriana Leman) are derailed when he has several such hallucinations at a garden party (One of the most appalling is a scene in which he witnesses Rebecca’s father nursing from the black-veined breasts of Pickman’s witch ancestor). 

Eventually Thurber suppresses his overwhelming dread and marries Rebecca, and they have a son. Pickman, however, returns, and brings with him new paintings that he wants Thurber’s art society to display–a prospect that terrifies Thurber. Seeing one such painting starts the waking nightmares all over again, and an increasingly unhinged Thurber confronts Pickman to find why he paints such scenes and where he finds the sources of his material.

To emphasize what Thurber is going through, viewers witness a scene where a corpse is served at a feast (the corpse’s face is clearly based on Lovecraft’s very distinct appearance), and another where Thurber is tied to his bed by Pickman’s witch and his head is sawed off. By this point, we’ve left Lovecraft’s original story and his less explicit brand of the macabre and have entered the realm of slasher flicks and more extreme modern horror. Not that Thomas doesn’t do a good job with it–this is some freaky shit. As a fan of the original short story, I could tell at a certain point that Thomas was definitely going to break away from that blueprint and show the creature upon which Pickman has based his final masterpiece, and sure enough, we get an impressive fanged humanoid climbing out of a subterranean pit–a practical effect, not CGI. And the story doesn’t end there.

I didn’t mind Thomas and his writers taking “Pickman’s Model” into nausea-inducing visual territory–this is, after all, a story centering around scary imagery. However, in the final act, after Pickman’s model is revealed, the episode goes a step further, as we see that Pickman’s paintings haven’t just had a psychological effect on Thurber, but they’ve had a downright supernatural effect on his family. This is too much, as though the question of what disturbing images do to the viewer isn’t really important, and isn’t it just plain cool to see dismemberments and mutilations?  Well, a documentary was once made about a Parisian slaughterhouse (Georges Franju’s 1949 short, Blood of the Beasts), but I don’t know if any horror fans consider it entertaining.

“The Dreams in the Witch House” is a somewhat tighter package as far as Lovecraft adaptations go, and director Hardwicke uses sleep paralysis imagery more than carnage to induce dread, though she concludes the story with a burst of gore (which is actually in keeping with the original short story). The Cabinet of Curiosities version completely changes the protagonist, which was inevitable because Lovecraft’s version of Walter Gilman (played here by Rupert Grint) was pretty bare-bones and uninteresting on his own. Grint has at least one good qualification for a horror lead: His eyes seem to open an extra millimeter or two, giving him an excellent fear-stricken expression (and his Bahston accent is a little easier to take than Glover’s).

Unlike in the story, however, this version of Gilman once had a twin sister (Daphne Hoskins), whose childhood death he witnessed–he also witnessed the abduction of her ghost through some portal into a sinister forest. The adult Gilman has spent years searching for a way to contact his sister’s ghost and possibly rescue her, and an opportunity arises when he learns of a house where spectral things have occurred for years, including sightings of another witch, Keziah Mason (Lize Johnston).

Gilman’s disgusting room in the house features crumbling walls, a large moist stain on the ceiling, and a rat-like occupant nicknamed Brown Jenkin (DJ Qualls), a freakish diminutive animal with a human-like face, large incisors and penchant for trash talking. An aside: Brown Jenkin is one of horror fiction’s least scary creatures, even, I would imagine, for people with musophobia. Yes, getting bitten by a small beast with beaver-like teeth doesn’t sound pleasant, but you could probably dispatch Brown Jenkin with nothing more than a glue trap. 

In dreamlike visions, Keziah appears and leans in close to a supine and immobilized Gilman; and by decoding markings left behind by the witch and other occupants of her house, Gilman figures out how to pass through portals himself, reaching the place where his sister’s soul has been evading Keziah. We’re missing some of the other elements that Lovecraft put in his version, but we end up with a story that’s a little more conventional and a little less confusing, and again we have an episode where the on-screen depiction of something extra-dimensional erases the question of whether this is real or a delusion. Nice performances by a diverse cast (another improvement on Lovecraft’s story), especially Ismael Cruz Cordova as Gilman’s friend Elwood, and a fun but brief cameo by Nia Vardalos, make this a more enjoyable production than Lovecraft’s interesting-idea-but-doesn’t-quite-work tale.

Even with their imperfections, “Pickman’s Model” and “The Dreams in the Witch House” from Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities are very well done and satisfying episodes of a show that otherwise doesn’t have a lot to offer. I’m not a huge fan of the other episodes I’ve watched, even the adaptation of “Graveyard Rats” (directed by Vincenzo Natali) originally written by Lovecraft’s contemporary Henry Kuttner.

There’s unnerving and then there’s just unpleasant, and sticking a monster in a story in which an impossible-to-like character meets his or her inevitable end doesn’t automatically supply shudders. There are many ways to go about telling a horror story, but Lovecraft’s method of communicating fear–having it arise at the limits of imagination, or dawn like a realization–is enticing and imaginative, for all the challenges it presents to directors.