Over the course of its initial eight episodes, Guillermo del Toro’s The Cabinet of Curiosities has proven to be wildly eclectic in its subject matter — Lovecraftian creatures, grungy subterranean rats, gloopy body horror, drug-induced psychedelia, and even aliens have all made appearances. But of course, producer/mastermind del Toro would want at least one installment to feature an old-fashioned ghost story. Enter “The Murmuring”, written and directed by Jennifer Kent, adapting del Toro’s own short story. Kent is well known for The Babadook, arguably ground zero (along with It Follows and The Witch) for the modern “elevated horror” phenomenon. In a nice bit of creator synchronicity, “The Murmuring” fits just as neatly into Kent’s (admittedly small) oeuvre as it does del Toro’s; after all, The Babadook and follow-up The Nightingale are just as interested in mother-child dynamics and the hopelessness of a woman trapped in patriarchal society being deemed “psychotic” or “unstable” as they are in thrills and chills. “The Murmuring” finds Kent reuniting here with her Babadook lead Essie Davis, who plays ornithologist Nancy Bradley. Along with husband Edgar (Andrew Lincoln), the pair have spent their careers studying Dunlins and their flight patterns. Nancy is fascinated by the bird’s synchronized movements, which allow for elaborate configurations of thousands of birds flying in unison without bumping into each other despite no readily discernable mode of communication. Instead, Nancy refers to the phenomenon as a “murmuring,” even joking that perhaps the birds communicate telepathically. The Bradleys have received funding to decamp to a quiet, isolated island where they will observe and record Dunlins, hopefully furthering their understanding of how these creatures function.
Their trip begins inauspiciously enough; instead of having to camp out in tents in the cold, a local instead offers them an abandoned home to stay in. This caretaker has cleaned it up and made it presentable, and at the very least it will keep them warmer than staying outside. The Bradleys are grateful for the hospitality, and settle into the old but fairly comfortable home. They begin their work early in the mornings, creating recordings of the birds and then reading late into the night. But all is not as it seems. Kent reveals very early on that Nancy and Edgar have lost a child, and while it’s barely remarked upon at first, the seams in the Bradleys’ marriage begin to show themselves soon enough. Edgar tries to initiate intimacy with Nancy while they are alone in the home, casually at first but gradually intensifying and then eventually devolving into anger and frustration once rebuffed. For her part, Nancy seems genuinely happy spending time with her birds but begins hearing strange utterances on her recordings and seeing creeping shadows and dark figures at night. It’s not long before she begins unraveling, unnerved by the house’s dark past and incapable of dealing with her husband and their shared trauma.
“The Murmuring” is in some ways extremely familiar stuff; the ghostly specters haunting the home and the crimes of the past that Nancy gradually uncovers are well-trod ground. But here is a case of a fairly trim runtime (65 minutes or so) becoming a virtue. There’s no stringing the audience along waiting for the other shoe to drop, and revelations come quickly and with minimal fuss. It’s also genuinely creepy in places — Kent is nothing if not adept at well-constructed jump scares. But Kent’s real contribution is her sensitivity to character and a minimalist visual sensibility. Eschewing the widescreen format that most of the other segments were shot on, Kent embraces a more narrow aspect ratio, something approximating 1:66. It changes the frame in both obvious and subtle ways, de-emphasizing empty negative space on the sides of the frame and instead creating ample space above the characters heads. The house becomes a cavernous space, the actor’s bodies dwarfed by the imposing architecture and even the skies outside. There’s a fairly obvious bid toward emotional catharsis at film’s end, but more so than solving the mystery of the mad woman and her murdered son who haunt the house, the real achievement is the reconciliation between Nancy and Edgar. No one here is a villain, just damaged people all looking for ways to communicate. It’s a lovely little grace note to end this inaugural season; if Netflix opts to renew Cabinet of Curiosities for a second season, del Toro would do well to invite Kent back.