Guillermo del Toro might be an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, but at heart he’s always been a fanboy. Part carnival barker, part collector, del Toro has never been embarrassed to put his love of old monster movies, HP Lovecraft, and anime front and center (he even has a second home full of memorabilia that he has made a short documentary about). He’s also channeled much of his success into boosting young, up-and-coming filmmakers, at this point having produced more films than he’s actually directed himself. An anthology series bearing his name is a no-brainer, then, allowing del Toro to oversee a variety of short films while also giving a platform to a bevy of genre-affiliated artists. The first entry in this Cabinet of Curiosities series is directed by Guillermo Navarro, del Toro’s frequent cinematographer and, more recently, an accomplished television director (notably several episodes of the beloved Hannibal series). Titled “Lot 36,” and co-written by del Toro from his own short story of the same name, the short begins in 1990 as George Bush’s New World Order speech plays on TV. An elderly man is vigorously chopping up some meat before suddenly dropping dead of a heart attack. Jumping ahead several months, the story picks up with the introduction of Nick Appleton (Tim Blake Nelson), a military vet who harbors some virulently racist ideas and makes ends meet by buying abandoned storage units at auction. He’s got a nice side hustle set up with one of the managers, Eddie (Demetrius Grosse), who tips him off to potentially lucrative units. Sure enough, Eddie has security camera footage of the now-deceased old man visiting the same unit every day for years on end, always arriving with a bag, staying for an hour or so, and then exiting with the same bag now emptied. What was he dropping off every day? Nick is desperate to find out, needing something of value to sell quickly and pay off the loan shark whose threats have turned violent. Meanwhile, a nice Latina woman who has fallen behind on her monthly payments returns to the facility to beg for her family heirlooms back; Eddie has already sold the contents of the unit to Nick, and when the woman asks Nick to return photo albums and letters — personal items with great sentimental but no monetary value — he cruelly rebukes her (and makes some racist remarks about learning to speak English, to boot). Nick eventually makes his way into the titular Lot 36, and finds photo albums revealing the old man as a one-time Nazi, as well as antique chairs, a candelabra, and an ornamental table with a very recognizable supernatural symbol inlaid on its top. This eventually leads Nick to an antiques dealer and then, finally, a specialist in the occult who knows very well exactly who that old man was. Spoiler alert: no one good.
This is an awful lot of plot for what amounts to about 45 minutes of screen time, and while it’s never boring, it also moves at an awkward clip. It’s not until after the halfway point that any supernatural intimations are even flirted with, let alone realized, and the grand mystery of what exactly is hiding in the unit is both introduced and revealed within minutes. Exposition is delivered in bursts, quickly covering whatever we need to know to move the story along. And while the whole thing is reasonably creepy, it’s never really scary. Yet there’s something here, an effort to link the sins of the past to the here and now. After all, early ’90s anti-immigration rhetoric, old-school Rush Limbaugh talk-radio bluster, Nazism, and cold-hearted capitalism that turns human emotions into dollars and cents are all still very much with us. Long sequences of Nick hauling junk from the unit out to a dumpster become a kind of metaphor for burying the past, but some things can’t remain hidden. This being a del Toro project, the production design is impeccable, of course. Navarro turns the storage facility into a maze of never-ending corridors, long rows of look-alike units shrouded in dim light. A prickly Nelson gives a fine performance as the epitome of white rage, a man angry at a country that has taken everything from him and fearful of a future that does not include him, and one who in his hubris and greed awakens something darker than he could imagine. There’s an unfortunately pat moral that arrives at the end, an ironic bit of finger-wagging that feels out of sync with the cosmic horror we’ve just witnessed, but overall “Lot 36” marks an auspicious beginning to del Toro’s latest project.