Netflix’s new anthology series Cabinet of curiosities by Guillermo Del Toro gives us eight tales of terror by eight distinct voices. The story of an elixir that will completely transform you, two new adaptations of lesser known stories by HP Lovecraft and new original works by Guillermo del Toro himself. While each director lends their distinctive voice to their respective episode, what ties them together is the show runner’s love of the classics, with the entire show infused with hints of gothic and cosmic horror.
However, Del Toro’s greatest homage to the anthology horrors of yesteryear is found at the start of each story, as he, in suit and glasses, walks towards the camera and gives a short prologue to each story. Standing next to him is an intricate and appropriate prop: The Cabinet of Curiosities. Del Toro and his cabinet are the show’s hosts, showcasing each piece with both a story-relevant artifact and a beautiful, intricate thumbnail of each episode’s director. This makes perfect sense, considering he’s the showrunner and has written multiple episodes, but let’s look at the history of horror anthology hosts to see how far Del Toro has come and how he’s blazing his own trail.
Horror hosts have been around since the genre began
Horror hosts can take many forms, but all serve a similar purpose: to frame feature presentation. Whether in the case of icons like Elvira, Mistress of Darkness, or its predecessor, A vampire, who sit in a gothic living room at home and present a schlocky horror film, or in the case of Del Toro and others, giving us a prologue and an epilogue to every episode of an anthology. They are recurring characters while unrelated to the story, breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience. They are the storytellers, the recorders of scary stories.
While Elvira, Vampira, and others like them certainly deserve their own article, we’ll focus primarily on anthology TV. These hosts can be fictional characters, such as the Midnight Society, the group of children sitting around the campfire telling stories in Are you scared of the darkor the Crypt Keeper, the cunning corpse who opens his creepy cavalcade in Tales from the Cryptor Freddy Kruger himself in Freddy’s Nightmaresjust as often these hosts can be real people, and regularly the minds behind the shows.
Guillermo del Toro is inspired by Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling
It’s not just limited to horror. The birth of network television is filled with stars who have hosted their own “story of the week” shows such as Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyckand Richard Boon, all the movie actors who have found a home on the small screen hosting their own series of one-act plays recorded for television. The most emblematic of these hosts was the acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcockwith his anthology series 1955-1962 Alfred Hitchcock presents. This is where we see the true beginnings of Del Toro’s hosting style, because while Hitchcock is known for his movies, he’s also a personality, turning into a character. It’s unusual for a director, especially in his time, but his looks, voice and demeanor are extremely well known. The same can be said for Rod Serling, creator and host of The twilight zone. While singular episodes can live in infamy for decades, it’s the man in the suit, always there, always on the lookout, to guide us through the story, who has held the series together.
This practice had faded for a while, with more recent anthology shows simply showing the episodes after a brief opening. Charlie Brooker, although he is already an established comedic personality from his shows as Screenwipe of Charlie Brooker and You have watcheddoes not host black mirror, for example. He made a too brief reappearance when Jordan Pele hosted the 2019-2020 reboot of The twilight zone, opening and closing each episode as Serling did, but eventually returned once more with Cabinet of curiosities by Guillermo Del Toro.
While Del Toro is still a man in a suit, similar to Hitchcock, Serling and Peele, and is a designer known for being a lover of classic horror to the point that even his house is a museum, he makes the device of framing his own. Sure, he’s got an iconic look and voice, dressing like all those presenters, but what sets him apart is that big wooden box of many compartments.
GDT is joined by Hit Trusty Cabinet of Curiosities
This is a beautifully designed accessory that opens up in so many surprising ways. In German it’s known as Wunderkammer, a Cabinet of Wonders, and in the first episode, Del Toro establishes what it is and essentially its role in the series. It’s his cabinet of curiosities, a storage container full of oddities, and with every oddity there’s a story behind it that he wishes to tell. He places the object on the table: a key, a TV remote, an old sketchbook, and with it is a small sculpture of whoever directed the episode. This part is particularly novel, as it places the figure down and says the name out loud, rather than being opening credits subtitles, with each sculpture having little Easter eggs from the episode that we are about to see. This shows us that even though the series has one name, there are eight distinct voices behind it.
Horror hosts are an underused tool in anthology storytelling that should definitely make a comeback. It’s an inviting presence, reminiscent of the very beginnings of horror, a world of some of the greatest storytellers of all time bringing us into their world. They prepare us for what we are going to see, they prepare us to suspend our disbelief because we are in on it, in a way. We are not watching a person’s life unfold or unfold before our eyes, but a story, which may have already happened or will happen. It’s almost a kind of comforting self-reflexivity as the host tells us, don’t worry, it’s just a show. It’s not a fear that will last forever, or a fear that you have to be afraid of in your life. You come with the host, and he’ll take you on a short trip, through the twilight zone, or into a cabinet of curiosities.