Now this is more like it!
The previous episode of Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities was a reliably slick and visually rousing dollop of single serving horror that contained all the usual hallmarks usually associated with anything the Mexican auteur has his finger prints on. But for a premier episode for a much ballyhooed anthology series it felt a little basic, with all the intricately gooey monsters and Lovecraftian set ups being a gorgeously freakish skin draped over an overly simplistic story. Weirdly enough, the second episode, the harrowingly fun Graveyard Rats, contains more than a couple of things in common with the earlier tale such as endless dark corridors, randomly placed eldritch gods and a complete shit-heel of a lead, but under the guidance of previous Del Toro collaborator, Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice, In The Tall Grass), this simplistic tale takes on the squirrely energy of its titular rodents.
Masson makes his living robbing freshly buried corpses for any jewelry and gold teeth they may possesses, but recently he’s been finding that picking have been worryingly slim due to a particularly aggressive breed of rat that lurks under the local graveyard that’s been dragging away the bodies before our ghoulish entrepreneur can get his mits on them.
Facing pressure from the men he owes rather a substantial amount of money to, a progressively more desperate Masson tries bothering his informant at the local morgue for some leads on any particularly wealthy people due to be buried anytime soon and Masson’s fortunes seems like they’re destined to change when he learns of an aristocrat due to be taking the dirt nap the next day.
The plan is simple; get to the freshly covered grave and dig it up before the varacious rats claim the body, but Masson finds that after opening the coffin, the rodents have already burrowed up through the wood and are in the process of dragging the corpse off.
His overwhelming greed empowering him with enough outrage to counteract his fear of enclosed spaces and his fear of rats, Masson forges ahead, crawling after his prize into the maze of tunnels that exist under the graveyard. But soon, even his monumental desire for money is tested in the face of the twin threats he stumbles across in the dark with the first being a huge, mutant rat that sees Masson’s live flesh as a nice change from the dead meat it usually chows down on. However, the second danger proves to be far more sinister as the tormented grave robber finds himself in a subterranean temple built in worship of a statue of a tentacled god that has a terrible security system for any grubby fingers that wishes to steal the shiny talismans located within.
For those laden with a fear of claustrophobia or scurrying rodents will no doubt find Graveyard Rats quite a problematic forty-odd minutes to sit through as the entirety of the episode’s second half involves David Hewitt’s odious deadbeat dragging himself through filthy tunnels and shrieking at the hundreds of fuzzy little bastards that keeps insisting on bothering him, but who the hell wants to watch a comfortable horror short? Thus after a well paced set up that lays out all the facts we need, director Natali lays out set piece after squirm inducing set piece that sees it’s long suffering lead wedged in horribly tight crawl spaces, constantly shrieking for salvation as he ironically plays cat and mouse with a monster rat and unfortunately takes the role of the mouse.
The rat monster is fucking glorious, a mostly practical effect that snarls, drools and stirs up fond memories of similar monstrosities that featured in James Herbert’s novel The Rats or even the little seen Stephen King adaptation Graveyard Shift, but the director’s smart pacing means that this overfamilar story still feels fast paced and unpredictable.
In fact, the weird veer into the supernatural with Masson’s troubles multiplying exponentially when he angers a tentacled God who sics a particularly persistent zombie on him may technically be an unnecessary wrinkle (What, a giant rat monster isn’t enough?), but why be stingy with your monsters when you only have a single episode to make an impact.
As expected of the series so far, the production values are stupendous and the period setting, not to mention Hewitt’s near-constant panic stricken blustering, gives you the slightly delirious feeling that a character from Charles Dickens has blindly wandered into a H.P. Lovecraft story and can’t find his way out. In fact, the first part of the story, especially the parts where Masson goes about his grisly hustle, feels like a bit of Edgar Allen Poe has been thrown in too and numerous creepy moments are mined as we get nauseous extreme close-ups as jaws are pried open and the teeth and gums of the recently (and in one case – gloopy) dead are examined. The ending, while fairly easy to figure out (I don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler to say that horror shorts that feature morally questionable people usually only have one out come), is still raucously unsettling and features showstopping shades of George Romero’s legendary Creepshow offering, “They’re Creeping Up On You”.
So hardly an original offering then, but Graveyard Rat’s enjoyable treats don’t lie within its ability to conjure up brand new creeps and crawls, but instead works best when it takes an overused concept and goes for broke by piling on the trauma upon its loathsome, but weirdly pitiful, lead. Natali also finds himself onto a winner whenever he fully embraces the claustrophobia of the situation, virtually cramming his camera up his lead’s nose in order to whip up oxygen-sapping freak outs while never making the underground surroundings feel samey or boring – something the director managed to do incredibly well when ingeniously reusing the same set during the filming of his debut, Cube.
I have to admit, after Cabinet Of Curiosities’ first episode, I was worried that maybe Del Torro’s show might have ended up all flash and no trousers, but while Graveyard Rats is similarly substance giving way to the nibbling teeth of style, it’s relentless pace, imaginative horrors and gleefully brutal treatment of its lead means that I now personally can’t wait to open another one of Del Toro’s doors.