Ever since The Twilight Zone introduced us to that spooky floating door and Rod Serling’s dulcent tones, the creepy anthology series has been a staple of television for decades and perhaps the only question to ask when discovering that Guillermo Del Toro is finally throwing his hat in the ring is why the hell hasn’t this happened sooner?
After all, Del Toro has an absurdly fertile mind and probably has more ideas and concepts buzzing around that head of his than he actually has years left in his life – so what better way to exorsise some of those typically horrific/beautiful rainstorms of his than to get Netflix to bankroll a bunch of varied directors to come together under his metaphorical wing and disgorge some good old fashioned horror shorts for Halloween? First up is Lot 36, an EC Comics style tale of a morally shitty character caught up in demonic shenanigans courtesy of one-time Del Toro cinematographer Guillermo Navarro – but is all the lush production values worth the effort?
Nick is a veteran, but he’s also a sweaty, right-wing, xenophobic ass-hat to boot and his main source of income is to bid on abandoned storage lockers in order to rustle up the scratch he needs to pay off his substantial debts. Working a kind of side-hustle with Eddie, the owner of the storage place, in order to get tips the best lots, we get a real look at exactly how shitty Nick really is when he’s accidently sold the contents of a locker that belong to a Mexican immigrant named Amelia, yet flatly refuses to give her any of her items back simply because the racist chip on his shoulder is the size of a killer whale and he feels the world owes him something.
However, his fortunes look set to change when he bids on lot 36, a storage locker belonging to a reclusive old man who would turn up to the locker every day for about 40 years while performing odd actions before entering and after working his way through the discarded belongs, Nick hits pay dirt in the form of an ornate seance table and three hefty books on demon summoning. Directed to Roland, an interested buyer who is willing to cough up $300,000 if Nick can find the incredibly rare fourth volume, the two men head back to search the locker even further and Roland relays the tale of the locker’s owner who, apart from being rumour to have given up his own sister for possession, was something of a Nazi too, essentially being an all-round despicable human being. Of course, Nick could giveca shit about any of this; all Nick cares about is what he feels he is owed, but when a hidden compartment gives them access to the demon the old man conjured, Nick going to find that his “fuck you” attitude is going to come back and cost him in the worst way.
If Cabinet Of Curiosities resembles anything, it’s the highly ambitious Masters Of Horror, Mick Garris’ 2005 series that gathered up such names as John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Joe Dante and Don Coscerelli to bang out hour long tales full of unrelenting, disturbing (and often uneven) terror. As if to continue its legacy, Lot 36 proves to be a solid, if rather unspectacular start to Del Torro’s Halloween, Netflix extravaganza what what it lacks in suprises, it mostly makes up for it with a strong central performance and some predictably strong visuals.
Front and centre is a sweaty and bug-eyed performance from Tim Blake-Nelson who takes his thoroughly unlikable character who traffiks almost exclusively in being an untrustworthy, paranoid and entitled piece of shit and makes him incredibly watchable through sheer wit and energy alone. An ex-veteran who’s hearing disability has left him distrustful of the world in general and has unsurprisingly turned his rage and bitterness on anyone who isn’t white and right-wing, Nick could have just been just another one dimensional d-bag, but between bouts of thinly veiled bigotry and lots of scowling, Nelson makes his character still feel human and lost as he rails against a society he feels is failing him.
However, as layered as Nick is, the story he finds himself in is weirdly simple and Lot 36 could weirdly have benefited from either some pairing down to an impossibly lean 30 minutes or expanding into a feature as what we have presented here gives us a lot of typical Del Toro style detail that, for once, doesn’t add much to the overall flow of the story.
Having co-written the script from one of his own short stories, Del Toro’s prints are all over this thing, right down to some genuinely rousing set design and some reliably freakish creature designs (more on those later) but some of his patented imagery, while certainly unnerving, justvseem to be weird for weird’s sake. The opening scene that features the owner of the titular lot going about his otherworldly business is certainly unnerving, but witnessing chopping up little demon carcasses for… reasons(?) shortly before he crumples under the irresistible onslaught of a massive heart attack is certainly intriguing, but ultimately adds nothing to the story. I presume he’s eating them (I guess demon meat has Colonel Sanders’ secret herbs and spice beaten hands down) but for once this (literal) slice of Lovecraftian mystery would have been better served by either being expanded or ditched altogether.
However, while the ending takes a predictable leaf out of the pages of EC Comics (bad person screws with the occult and meets an end worthy of his crappy persona), the final reveal of Dottie, the host of the demon, proves to be a prime example of Del Torro monster making. Trapped in the withered host body of the sister of the storage bin owner, the tentacled terror has taken refuge in the corpse’s hollowed out face an once accidently freed by Nick’s blundering greed, the beast semi emerges and stalks the storage facility with a pair of human pins but is a mass of writhing, Lovecraftian death from the waist up. It’s a cracking creature design and fairly indicative of the lush production values that the show boasts. In fact, there’s probably no one better to helm a De Torro script than Navarro who knows exactly how to bring out the levels of visual detail the script no doubt contained with the crammed storage bin being a veritable feast for the eyeballs.
So a decent start then for this series then and even though there’s nothing here we haven’t experienced multiple places before, it truly does this horror veteran’s heart good to see Del Torro introduce the episode in a plus-sized suit like Alfred Hitchcock with a mexican accent.
While certainly slick and easy on the eyes, here’s hoping the remaining seven stories make us more curious than this.