Over its eight episode run, Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities has seen quite a few noticable directors behind the camera (although curiously, not Del Toro himself) in order to produce a variety of thrills and chills to the small screen. However, while the likes of Panos (Mandy) Cosmatos and Catherine (Twilight) Hardwicke have graced the show with their efforts, surely the most impressive get for the rosta of directorial talent is that of Jennifer Kent who created a legitimate horror phenomenon in The Babadook that helped usher in the wave of “elevated horror” during the mid 2010’s.
However, in a move that’s impressively ballsy, Cabinet Of Curiosities chooses to end its first season not with drugged out cosmic chaos (The Viewing), some classic H.P. Lovecraft (Dreams In The Witch House) or even a skin crawling mystery (The Autopsy), but instead closes out with a quiet, thoughtful piece that, if it wasn’t for the presence of ghosts, would barely feel like a horror at all…
Ornithologist couple Nancy and Edgar Bradley have recently thrown themselves into their work of studying bird murmerations a year after the death of their daughter Ava. But while Edgar has processed a lot of his initial grief, Nancy is yet to even cry and both are feeling the strain of it on their marriage.
A respite may be in the air, However, in the form of a remote, country house where the two intend to continue diligently studying the patterns and habits of the Dunlin species of bird and firca while it does actually seem like the isolation us doing them some good.
Of course, this is a Jennifer Kent adaptation of a Guillermo Del Toro short story as so things don’t stay too isolated for too long and soon Nancy starts having visions of either a crying child or a woman screaming in accusatory rage that start as faint sounds picked up by her recording equipment and soon balloons into full scale visions.
Causing yet more pressure to be applied to an already wobbly relationship is the fact that Edgar, while a loving husband who is doing his best to comfort his wife, isn’t hearing or seeing any of the spectral phenomena that his wife is going though and furthermore begins to get increasingly worried about how obsessed his wife is getting with the history of the house.
However, through studying its history, Nancy discovers of the tragic fate of the previous owner who turns out to a young woman who was unable to cope raising her young son alone and resorted to horrific measures. Left alone in the house after Edgar leaves after a particularly bitter argument, Nancy uses her knowledge of the house’s previous inhabitants coupled with her own pent-up grief to try and settle the spirits who dwell within.
While all anthology series worth their salt have their ups and downs when it comes to personal taste, Cabinet Of Curiosities has managed to beat the odds thus far with no episode being out and out awful and at least three episodes being utter crackers. Yet, with this above average cluster of horror-themed tales, there has noticably been a series of obvious patterns. The main one (aside from almost every episode being a period piece of some sort) us that the vast majority had either been a direct adaptation of, or had at least been strongly influenced by, the works of H.P. Lovecraft that gleefully dipped its tentacles in cosmic body horror, multi-limbed elder gods or even a spot of witchery here and there.
So imagine our suprise when the final episode ditches subterranean tunnels and night time horrors to give us a focused character piece that’s mostly awash with open skies and natural daylight that plays as a focused character piece that ponders the nature of grief and how it can take different forms in different people. To cut straight to the meat of the matter, The Murmuring ends up being something of a spiritual sequel (and I do mean spiritual) to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook which dealt of similar themes of loss, the supernatural and the uncomfortable subject of a mother that is driven to harm her own children.
In that 2015 classic, we saw Essie Davis deliver a tour de force performance of a windowed mother who is struggling to bond with her difficult son as a malevolent spirit is goading her to cause him harm; here we have something of a reshuffling of events as Davis gives an equally intense performance as a bereaved mother who is bothered by a spirit that’s harmed her own child. However, it’s no less potent as she runs the gauntlet of struggling to process her child’s passing despite having to continue as if the world is still normal. Simply put, she’s magnificent and she’s given ample support by The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln as her supportive but equally struggling husband.
However, as engrossing as the drama and sterling performances are, The Murmuring suffers a little by not being particularly scary with the haunting scenes being fairly standard of the genre and not exactly original or inspired. Even though it riffs on other, subtle spook shows such as The Changling and The Haunting (not the remake), the simple fact is that despite that fact The Murmuring is based on a De Toro short story, it’s the supernatural stuff that let’s the side down. For a series that has nailed visualising scheming alien parasites, massive mutant rats and whatever the fuck was going on in The Viewing, it’s weird that it’s ghostly beings are so… normal, but even though the ghost stuff is more of a side bar to the central drama, thankfully the leads are firing on enough cylinders to keep things gripping.
It’s a surprisingly civilised ending to a series with more hits than misses and maybe it was Del Toro’s plan all along to catch us off guard by closing things up with a mature story about genuine human emotions that isn’t simply about a greedy piece of shit getting some Lovecraftian just desserts or a obsessed weirdo stumbling into some nightmarish Hell.
It’s a thoughtful wrap up that may frustrate those wanting a big, cosmic, special effects blow out, but while the supernatural subject matter may not break any molds exactly (Del Toro himself has told far more memorable ghost stories with both The Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak), it still gives Kent ample room to further explore themes of the darker sides of motherhood for a streaming audience.