Anybody who has a few moments should go online and peek through Guillermo Del Toro’s sketchbooks.
They are an encyclopedia of inventively boundless grotesqueries, sprawling across pages that are tight-fitted with text, details, storylines, all written in Spanish. This is a fan’s treasure chest. Many of his characters in the sketchbooks have made it into his movies, including Pan’s Labyrinth. So it’s Del Toro’s treasure chest as well.
Now, some of that inspiration has gone into the Netflix series Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, and it’s often a hoot, from the opening Alfred Hitchcock-like intros by the filmmaker himself, to the everything-goes premises of each entry in the omnibus series.
Anthology horror is nothing new, from the ‘60s Twilight Zone to the early ‘70s Night Gallery (to which Del Toro’s setup seems to allude, along with a special fondness for H.P. Lovecraft). Helmed by directors like Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Panos Cosmatos (who did the truly-bonkers, visionary Mandy with Nic Cage) and Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke, it’s got something different for everyone.
Does it work? Does it scare? If you’re looking for straight-up hair-raising, not really (though my wife’s frequent hand-clutching during nightly viewings might argue otherwise); but it’s a fun grab bag of horrific scenarios, drawn, it seems straight from Del Toro’s otherworldly imagination.
Nursing a few suspicions
Even more creepifying this week on Netflix was The Good Nurse, with Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne in a true-story account of Charlie Cullen, a male nurse at a New Jersey hospital whom we come to suspect is offing his patients willy-nilly.
Directed by Tobias Lindholm (who wrote the nihilistic Danish drinking film Another Round), this one has the mood of a horror movie: underinsured nurse Amy Loughren (Chastain) tries to keep her hospital job long enough to get health coverage for her heart condition, all the while training a new night-shift nurse Cullen (Redmayne) who seems like an angel sent from above: he helps her do the heavy patient lifting, and promises to “get her through” the four months until she can qualify for insurance. But a number of coding patients under unusual circumstances leads her to wonder about Cullen’s past; her digging parallels that of two Jersey detectives who find that Cullen has been unceremoniously sacked from a bunch of other hospitals.
These detectives are possibly the worst ever in detecting history, BTW. They’re hot on the scent of Cullen, who’s changed names over the years, but instead of closing in, they enlist Chastain to gather all the evidence of his misdoings in the current hospital. Even while wearing a wire for a lunch date with Cullen, where he mentions a new hospital has hired him, the Dumbo Columbos’ first question to her is: “Uh, where’s that hospital he mentioned located?” Do your work, sirs! Google it! Be the detectives in this scenario!
Anyway, Chastain is, as always, convincing as a caring nurse (perhaps a bit too caring, considering she’s got a heart condition and a kid to look out for), and Redmayne, known for playing transformative characters (The Danish Girl, The Theory of Everything), does an especially creepy turn, using his long fingers to good effect in a series of faux Expressionistic/Renaissance poses. It’s an attention-getting turn, one that could be remembered come Golden Globes season.
‘The Stranger’ leaves its mark
They call it the “Mr. Big” procedure in police work: a suspect is lured into confiding in his supposed criminal cohorts, who actually turn out to be undercover cops in a sting operation. It’s the scaffolding that slowly emerges in The Stranger, a psychological thriller now on Netflix starring Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris as two sides of the insider operation. Edgerton (great at underplaying here) is “Mark Frame,” an undercover cop who gains the trust of Henry Teague (Harris), an Australian drifter, by luring him in with the promise of a criminal livelihood. But first the stranger has to prove his cred.
The resulting cat-and-mouse dance between Edgerton and Harris is eerie, disturbing, and based on a true story. For nearly a decade, Australian police had tried to solve the suspected murder of a teen; their prime suspect — Harris — has changed names and locations, and left not a single clue.
Harris is a lingering, almost spectral presence here. Anyone who’s seen his turn as Ian Curtis in 24 Hour Party People, or as a Mission: Impossible villain, know he’s skilled at playing people not hooked up right. Both Henry and Mark sport outback beards and ponytails, and a general low-level criminal vibe. When they face off, it’s like opposite sides of a mirror. Mark is a single dad who’s increasingly haunted by how the case — and Henry’s presence —seeps into his life, making him fear for his son’s safety and his own sanity.
The movie exerts a tightening grip, not least of all because Mark and Henry have to draw each other into confidence: watch as Henry demonstrates how he crept up behind a victim, wrapping his arm around Mark’s neck like a lover’s grip. Scary.
Police procedurals can be as audacious as David Fincher’s Se7en, or as heart-stopping as Silence of the Lambs. Chillingly laid out by director Thomas M. Wright (who worked on the Jane Campion series Top of the Lake), this one drains the blood right out of you, even as you watch, transfixed. Edgerton’s deepening dread rings true; evil is an actual presence, embodied in Harris’ deadpan gaze, his offhand comments. The Stranger leaves its mark on the viewer.