Netflix’s new anthology series Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities gives us eight tales of terror by eight distinct voices. A story of an elixir that will completely transform you, two new adaptations of lesser known H.P Lovecraft stories, and new original works by Guillermo Del Toro himself. Though each director lends their distinctive voices to their respective episode, what ties it together is the show runner’s love of the classics, with the entire show infused with notes of gothic and cosmic horror.
However, the greatest homage Del Toro pays to anthology horrors of old is at the beginning of every story, as he, in a suit and glasses, walks toward the camera, and gives a short prologue to each tale. Standing next to him is an intricate and appropriate prop: The Cabinet of Curiosities. Del Toro and his cabinet are the hosts of the show, presenting each piece with both an artifact relevant to the story, and a beautiful and intricate miniature of each episodes’ director. This makes perfect sense, considering he is the showrunner, and wrote several episodes, but let’s look at the history of anthology show horror hosts to see the path Del Toro is walking, and how he blazes his own trail.
Horror Hosts Have Been Around Since the Beginning of the Genre
Horror hosts can come in many forms, but all serve a similar purpose: to frame the feature presentation. Whether it be in the case of icons like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, or her predecessor, Vampira, who sit on a gothic chez lounge and introduce a schlocky horror movie, or in the case of Del Toro and others, giving us a prologue and epilogue to every episode of an anthology. They are recurring characters while being unrelated to the story, breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience directly. They are the storytellers, the archivists of spooky stories.
While Elvira, Vampira, and others like them are certainly worthy of their own article, we will be focusing primarily on anthology television. These hosts can be fictional characters, such as the Midnight Society, the group of kids sitting around the campfire telling stories in Are You Afraid Of The Dark, or the Crypt Keeper, the wisecracking cadaver who opens his cavalcade of creeps in Tales from the Crypt, or Freddy Kruger himself in Freddy’s Nightmares, just as often these hosts can be real people, and regularly the minds behind the shows.
Guillermo del Toro Takes After Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling
This isn’t just limited to horror. The birth of network television is filled with stars who hosted their own “story of the week” shows such as Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, and Richard Boone, all film actors who found a home on the small screen hosting their own series of, effectively, one act plays recorded for television. The most iconic of these hosts was acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock, with his 1955-1962 anthology series 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, making himself into a character. This is unusual for a director, especially back in his day, but his appearance, 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 to come, it was the man in the suit, always there, always watching, to guide us into the story, which 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, despite already being an established comedic personality from his shows like Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe and You Have Been Watching, doesn’t host Black Mirror, for example. It made an all too brief reappearance when Jordan Peele hosted the 2019-2020 reboot of The Twilight Zone, opening and closing each episode as Serling did, but it finally returned once again with Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.
While Del Toro is still a man in a suit, similar to Hitchcock, Serling and Peele, and is creator known to be a lover of classic horror, to the point where even his house is a museum to it, he does make the framing device his own. Of course, he has an iconic look and voice, dressing sharply as all these presenters do, 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 crafted prop that opens up in so many surprising ways. In German, it’s known as a Wunderkammer, a Cabinet of Wonders, and in the first episode Del Toro establishes what it is and essentially his role in the series. This is his cabinet of curiosities, a storage container filled with oddities, and with each oddity there is a story behind it that he wishes to tell. He places the object on the table: a key, a television remote, an old sketchbook, and with it is a small carving of the one who directed the episode. This part is especially novel, as he places the figure down and says the name aloud, rather than it being subtitles of the opening credits, each carving having little Easter eggs from the episode we are about to see. It shows us that while the series is under one name, there are eight distinct voices behind it.
Horror hosts are an underutilized tool in anthology storytelling which should definitely make a comeback. It’s an inviting presence, one that harkens back to the very beginnings of horror, a world of some of the greatest storytellers of all time who bring us into their world. They prepare us for what we are about to see, they prepare us to suspend our disbelief because we are in on the joke, in a sense. We are not watching the life of a person unfold or unravel before our eyes, but a story, one that may have happened before, or one that will happen. It’s almost a comforting kind of self-reflexivity as the host tells us, don’t worry, this is just a show. This isn’t a fear that will live on forever, or one you need to be afraid of in your life. You are coming with the host, and they will take you on a short trip, through the Twilight Zone, or into a Cabinet of Curiosities.