The Autopsy - Cabinet of Curiosities - Guillermo del Toro
Credit: Ken Woroner/Netflix
by Chris Mello Featured Film Streaming Scene

Cabinet of Curiosities Episode 3: “The Autopsy” — David Prior

October 31, 2022

Of all the directors chosen for Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, David Prior might just be the hippest choice. Prior, formerly known only for shooting home video featurettes for David Fincher movies, has but one feature under his belt, 2020’s The Empty Man, which was dumped into theaters at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and largely ignored until a cult formed around its DVD release. That film immediately made Prior someone to watch: its ambitious structure and scope, combined with an aesthetic somewhere between Fincher and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, presented a take on cosmic horror that was as thoughtful as it was scary.

His short for Del Toro’s anthology, “The Autopsy,” certainly shares a number of The Empty Man’s strengths. It is once again a horror story concerned with identity, death, and the grand cosmos. Its setting in a Pennsylvania mining town further reveals Prior’s interest in rusted American industry and the milieu surrounding it. And, while it definitely doesn’t shy away from the gory, scary bits, the bulk of the hour is more invested in procedure and conversation. Where The Empty Man was expansive and constantly surprising, “The Autopsy” struggles to move beyond the obvious in its slight frame.

The story concerns a coroner (F. Murray Abraham) called in by the local sheriff to conduct autopsies on the bodies of miners killed in the bombing that opens the episode. Ostensibly, his findings — whether or not the miner’s deaths count as job-related — will decide whether the victims’ families will collect money. In flashbacks to the sheriff’s investigation, the explosion is revealed to be the work of a man who has killed before and who, in all likelihood, is no man at all. del Toro’s own introduction to the episode cues the audience into the story’s concern with extraterrestrial life, so it becomes a foregone conclusion what exactly is going on here.

But “The Autopsy” plods along from these flashbacks to the autopsy itself, where Dr. Winters cuts into the victims and reports his findings, all while something sinister begins to slowly reveal itself. Without much in the way of shock, Prior relies on the dread of the inevitable to inject tension, as the episode builds to the doctor’s confrontation with dangerous alien life. And so, while he’s certainly a skilled horror filmmaker, and his attempts to frighten fare better than most of the genre work on platformed on Netflix, the slow build to the finale can’t help but underwhelm given how much time is spent recapping what was already obvious in the film’s cold open. Eventually, the gory finale proves to be suitably gross — though the CGI effects and the generally slick sheen of the cinematography detract — and philosophically compelling, but it doesn’t rise to a cumulative effect that makes the preceding slog feel worth it. Never mind that little of what “The Autopsy” has to offer is especially novel, either in regards to its themes or its more base scares. “The Autopsy” isn’t necessarily deserving of the dreaded “elevated horror” epithet, but it’s still hard to shake that what it does offer is basically just The Hidden but stripped of all of its fun.