At their best, the films of Guillermo del Toro use the very fundamentals of storytelling — elements that would be familiar to an eager child — in order to convey ideas of startling power and sophistication. The tightly constructed fantasy story “The Shape of Water” is, beyond its attention-getting premise, all about what it feels like to finally be understood; last year’s badly underrated “Nightmare Alley” breaks out of its clean narrative lines, by the end, in order to deliver a startlingly raw howl of grief.
The del Toro touch, the ability to use technical excellence and clarity of vision in order to say something powerful, is missing in his work as a curator, though. Del Toro has, for Netflix, put together a suite of eight hourlong horror stories with directors who include Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”), Ana Lily Amirpour (“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”), and del Toro collaborator Guillermo Navarro (Oscar-winning cinematographer of “Pan’s Labyrinth”). These episodes are often provocative — there’s visual imagination to spare, here, generally tending toward the visceral and gross. But there is, too often, a somewhat trite takeaway. It reverses del Toro’s tendency to find the profound within familiar storytelling tropes: Here, we cross dimensions into the world of eldritch only to find fairly simple morals.
To wit: Amirpour’s “The Outside” is a well-built hour of escalating tension, with a terrific punchline. But its story — about an awkward, shy woman (Kate Micucci, of the comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates) who begins using a cosmetic cream hawked on TV infomercials with terrifying results, feels like a point in search of resonance. (It’s definitely possible to imagine using dated references metaphorically to comment on our own Instagram-enabled era of self-consciousness, but here, the references are so aggressively deployed as to call attention to the ways they fall flat.) Navarro’s “Lot 36,” in which Tim Blake Nelson purchases the contents of a storage locker, again with terrifying results, features extraordinary visual effects, as well as a tidy conclusion that suggests it is better to be kind than cruel.
It’s not that these ideas — worry less about the superficial, help people when one can — are not well-taken. Indeed, del Toro is a wonderful on-camera presence when he appears to introduce each installment with a brief explanation of its themes. But they’re also a bit thin. The strongest episodes, like Keith Thomas’ “Pickman’s Model” (based on a H. P. Lovecraft short story), bring one’s attention relentlessly back to the macabre. In this story of an artist (Ben Barnes) driven to madness by the gruesome visual imagination of a friend (Crispin Glover), horror has its own justification, and its own rewards. And Vincenzo Natali’s “Graveyard Rats,” the title of which kind of says it all, has a sparky, grotesque imagination, a willingness to be unrelenting in imagining just how many rodents it can toss at the screen.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that the anthology series has found a second life in the era of divided attention: Here, as in “Black Mirror,” if you don’t particularly like one episode, there will be a completely new tone and set of characters in sixty minutes. But the closed-ended worlds created by the directors del Toro brought aboard varied enough in quality to make me miss, well, the work del Toro does as a director. That throughout his auteurs share his eye for the attention-getting is good enough to merit a recommendation. Too few, though, share what would make “Cabinet of Curiosities” transcendent — his heart.
“Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities” will launch two episodes a day from October 25 to October 28 on Netflix.