Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities
1×02: “Graveyard Rats”
Directed & Written
by Vincenzo Natali
Based on a Short Story by Henry Kuttner
* For a recap & review of 1×01, click here.
* For a recap & review of 1×03, click here.
A couple of men are grave robbing. They run into Masson (David Hewlett), a man who looks after the graveyard. He tells the men “the birth of civilization” came about when humans dug their first grave. He believes properly looking after the dead is one of the “foundations of society.” Actually, he’s just a grave robber himself and he wants to drive these lads off. Once the men are gone, Masson hops down into the grave and starts pulling for the dead woman’s gold tooth. He drops the tooth and has to go looking for it, only to get bitten by a rat. A rough night at the office.
Later, Masson goes to sell what he’s found throughout the night. He meets a man by the docks named Hans (Nabeel El Khafif) but the guy isn’t impressed with the haul. He’s “come up short” several times now and the people who run things aren’t happy. Turns out that Masson has racked up gambling debt at the poker table. He complains about the rats in Salem making things difficult at the graveyard. He says ships returning from “exotic lands” are bringing vermin along with them. He also mentions caverns beneath the streets of Salem, used in the ages of the Salem Witch Trials, which allow the rats places to hide. Masson’s too claustrophobic to go down there himself to do anything. But Hans doesn’t care for Masson’s excuses, neither do his bosses; he only wants to be paid.
Masson goes to see a friend named Dooley (Julian Richings), who works in the morgue. They have a slightly contentious relationship. But Masson’s brought a bit of liquid encouragement that convinces Dooley to let him down to take a look at the cadavers currently in stock. He takes a look in all the dead mouths for any potential gold fillings: nothing. Masson gets a look at one man behind a curtain, a “wealthy shipping merchant,” and Dooley doesn’t want the coroner to notice any issues with the corpse. They wrestle a bit before the coroner interrupts them, bringing by the dead man’s wife. They hide away and Masson hears about a sabre gifted to the man by King George himself; that would catch a hefty price.
At home, Masson reads John Milton’s Paradise Lost and he prays for the Lord’s mercy, hoping he’ll finally catch a financial break with this latest scheme. He then notices a crack in his ceiling above the bed; something sticks through. He hauls on it and it’s actually a rat tail. One rat falls through, then hundreds of them cascade through the hole. Except it’s all a nightmare and Masson thankfully wakes from it.
Masson goes to see the shipping merchant’s corpse laid out in the church, complete with the sabre in the dead man’s grip. He’s there when the widow turns up. He talks about preserving the integrity of her husband’s grave. And he holds back a big smile while the widow weeps. He’s biding his time until he’ll be able to take the sabre for his own purposes. Soon, the wealthy man is in the ground, and a little while later, Masson’s ready to dig him up.
But when Masson digs down to the casket he hears rats, worrying the vermin have ruined things for him. He finds that the rats are dragging the dead man deeper underground someplace. He imagines Hans putting him in a casket and nailing it shut. So he pushes deeper into the tunnel underground, convincing himself to keep going. He’s not far behind the corpse, but the tunnel isn’t safe and some of it gives way, falling into the darkness. Masson pushes himself to go on. And then things cave in on him, literally. He’s unable to get anywhere and he screams at the rats, telling them he’ll have vengeance on them. Suddenly a ton of rats come out of the darkness at Masson, crawling all over him and running past him. They attack him and bite him all over, so he starts firing his gun and immediately blows off some of his own foot. He manages to shoot one of the rats, too.
Then Masson hears a noise, noticing a large queen rat with its babies feeding from it further down the corridor nearby. He turns a moment to look and then turns back to the queen rat right in his face. He reaches for his gun and fires as the queen rat scratches at him. Masson crawls off desperately through the tunnels with the queen rat chasing after him. Eventually he tumbles through the floor again and into a pile of human skeletons below somewhere. There’s also a bunch of jewellery all over the floor beneath the bones. In the midst of it all, Masson has stumbled onto more riches than he’d ever dreamed, including the King George sabre. An unexpected bit of good news down there.
Only now, Masson has to get out somehow.
There’s a strange statue down there, remnants of a “Black Church” from the days of the Salem witches. There’s even an old corpse in prayer position with a shiny necklace that catches Masson’s eye. He goes to free the necklace from the dead body and the body comes alive, grabbing onto his wrists. The corpse takes a bite out of Masson’s ear before he tosses it off him. It keeps coming at him, croaking “Mine” from its dead throat. Masson manages to make a run for the tunnels again, trying to drag himself free. But he gets stuck. He begs God to help him and soon he pushes through and gets to another space where he can stand up slightly.
Yet the corpse keeps coming, too.
Masson tries to stop the corpse when he also hears the queen rat approach again. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place; once more, quite literally. So he decides to use the sabre for defence now. The queen rat attacks and knows the sabre out of Masson’s hands. So he pulls down some of the tunnel on top of the rat, killing it. The corpse is still trying to get at him, though, but it’s also fairly crushed. Masson sees light at the end of the tunnel, quoting Milton to himself over and over: “Long is the way and hard that out of Hell leads up to light.”
Problem is, the light is a shiny piece from inside a coffin. And Masson’s trapped back in the wealthy man’s casket, where the rats swarm him again, biting and chewing him all over. Some time later, Masson’s found by the young grave robbers from the beginning and his corpse is full of rats.