This may be a particularly ghoulish fact to admit, but I’ve always been fascinated by cinematic autopsies.
Whether it’s used as an exclamation point to really twist the knife about how deranged a serial killer really is (Se7en, Silence Of The Lambs) to picking apart some inhuman creature in order to better explain to the characters present it’s very nature (Blade II, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), the use of the human body as a biological box of secrets has always been a tremendously visceral way to further the plot and as we head into the third episode of Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, director David Prior (The Empty Man) gives us a doozy.
So pull on some gloves, get that scalpel ready and make sure you press play on that tape recorder, because we’re going on a gruesome trip where outer space meets inner space.
In the aftermath of a mining tragedy that saw a cave-in caused some strange explosive device, Sheriff Nate Craven is left with a bunch of bodies and a whole mess of questions that he can’t possibly explain. Making things even more confounding is that the man who supposedly caused the event, Joe Allen, is also the lead suspect in a murder that left a man in a severly mutilated state.
In an attempt to snag any kind of explanation whatsoever, Craven calls in his old friend Dr. Carl Winters to perform autopsies on the recovered bodies of the poor souls lost in the event and events get off to a maudlin start when Winters reveals that he’s dying of stomach cancer and has only six months left to live.
Getting to work in a makeshift theatre set up at the mining company, Winters finds that the first body died from wounds consistent from being buried alive while find no evidence of bomb damages whatsoever, but as he moves onto the other bodies, he discovers the plot thickens when he finds puncture wounds in the body that curve upwards to the heart and lungs that left the organs almost completely drained of blood and sumises that the key to unlocking this mystery lay within the body of Allen.
However, before he can wheel the table out, Allen’s body starts twitching and jerking and even manages to claw itself to its feet and communicate with the horrified coroner and finally the whole horrible mystery is laid out bare. However, the price Winters may have to pay for his search for the truth could cost him his very soul as the thing controlling the Allen meat puppet has no intention of letting its story end here and as it prepares its victim for a horrific fate, it uses its host to extravagantly monologue its malevolent intent. However, considering Winters’ prognosis, maybe a man with nothing to lose is the worst victim this egotistical evil could have chosen.
Boasting a script by David Goyer based on a short story by Michael Shea, The Autopsy is a gripping hour of horror television split into two halves each as ferociously watchable as each other. The first deals with the facts of the case as we mere humans understand them as Glynn Turman’s crusty sheriff finds himself vexed by the facts in the case of Joe Allen that stubbon refuse to fit together. As he doggedly attempts to force the events to make sense like a three year old pounding two mismatched jigsaw pieces together, there’s a real maudling feeling about the episode. And why should it not? This is no frivolous tales about fun loving youngsters having their belief that they’re indestructible being tested by an rampaging evil, no, this is a tale about men in the autumn of their lives, forced to look death square in the face even if there wasn’t a smug, inhuman presence waiting to violate the human condition. This part in particular references a magnetic F. Murray Abraham as the ailing Dr. Winters who has made his peace with whatever comes next and still diligently chips away at his job until his stomach cancer prematurely calls time. Both his and Turman’s world weary performances hint at two old men who could quite easily half-arse the conundrum that sits in front of them due to their advanced ages and ailing health, but instead diligently press on to attempt heroic feats.
However, the opening half of this brooding puzzle gives way to a battle of wills with a Lovecraftian villain from beyond the stars once the titular operation takes place. You see, lurking within the animated corpse of the number one suspect is a parasitic alien who has nestled itself comfortably within the torso of Allen and who kept itself alive in the tunnels by draining the blood and nutrients from the other men trapped in the mine. However, the verbose creature (speaking with total confidence through it’s host’s mouth) needs to jump ship and has targeted Winters to be its next ride, disturbingly adding that the cancer eating away at the coroner’s digestive system will make a delicious meal. Its here that the episode becomes a gruesome two-hander as a bound and immobile Winters probes the creature for details that the vain beastie is only too happy to oblige.
Most attempts to ape Lovecraft’s more science fiction themed stories focus more on the unfathomable nature of something that is truly alien to our soft, human brains, but the author would often make these threats coldly intelligent and worryingly tricksy and The Autopsy gives us a tentacled space blob that’s essentially the alien from The Hidden if it nattered on like a self-obsessed Bond villain. As it describes the truly disturbing details of what it takes from slithering from one body to another, it reveals an impressive sadistic streak, obviously taking great pleasure in the horror it inflicts while looking like an undersea blancmange with a pattern of holes on it’s back that’ll no doubt trigger the trypophobics among you.
Everything about the episode is fascinating, from the build up, to the grisly details of the autopsies themselves, to the traumatizing step by step guide of how a smugly loquacious alien transfers itself from one body cavity to another – but none of it is as transfixing as Winters all or nothing plan to try and outwit his body snatching nemesis.
How the episode writes it’s way out of Winters’ seemingly hopeless predicament turns out to be comparable to that seen in Mike Flanagan’s Stephen King adaptation, Gerald’s Game that sees a climax that’s every bit empowering and ingenious than it is genuinely grueling and brutal as its cancer suffering lead chooses to go out on his own terms.
With this third installment, Cabinet Of Curiosities has secured itself a decent win/loss record so far and hopefully the run continues – but the remaining episodes will be hard pushed to top this hour of horror that opens up the chest and gets right to the guts of the matter.