How Guillermo Del Toro's Cabinet Of Curiosities Built That Terrifying Rat Queen

Guillermo del Toro's "Cabinet of Curiosities" is full of strange, freaky, and delightful treasures. The Netflix anthology series boasts a treasure trove of horrors that range from the otherworldly and Lovecraftian to the deceptively mundane. But for fans of practical effects, one of the cabinet's residents stands tail and shoulders above the rest: the Rat Queen.

The Rat Queen makes her grand entrance in the appropriately named episode "Graveyard Rats," which is directed by Vincenzo Natali ("Splice") and stars David Hewlett as a grave robber trapped in a cycle of bad luck. Hewlett's Masson is in bad shape by the time he meets the Rat Queen, downtrodden and seemingly doomed to never get the money he needs. Also, he's plagued by rats for much of the episode's runtime. Lots and lots of rats. Needless to say, this is an episode of TV you should skip if you're afraid of the creatures.

But the episode's smaller rats are built with CGI, whereas the mama rat was the real, non-special-effects deal, and she looks it. No, it wasn't a real giant rat, but a fully operable custom-made puppet that's impressive to witness on screen. According to Natali's interview with Newsweek, the massive prop was created by a company called Spectral Motion, and as he puts it, "It was really quite something to behold."

A perfectly frightening puppet

Behind-the-scenes photos reveal the rat in the light of day, and it's impressively detailed. The puppet, which appears to be bigger than its human co-star, features cloudy white eyes, scabby, bulging skin, and an intimidating set of teeth and claws. Natali says it was "actually frightening" by design. "The queen rat was so shocking, and they had it right in David's face," he said in an interview with Newsweek. "I think it was better than if he was acting to a tennis ball on a grip stand, and it's thrilling." Natali also revealed that the crew tried to use real rats for the scenes with smaller rodents, but that "they just wouldn't ever behave the way that we needed them to."

The Rat Queen puppet, though, did everything right, down to wriggling its whiskers. Natali says it "could articulate really, really well" and that the puppeteers — a rat-wrangling team credited as Kevin McTurk, Richard J. Landon, Mike Elizalde, Norman Cabrera, Gord Robertson, and Shane Zander — had a blast with it. "Then you get a subtlety in terms of how that creature interacts with the light and even little things like the way its whiskers move and so on, that would be very difficult to do digitally," he shared. 

The filmmaker also explained that, in his opinion, puppets can be hit-or-miss, making the flawlessness of the Rat Queen puppet "an extraordinary situation, especially on a TV timeline budget."

Practical effects win again

As a horror fan, I always prefer practical effects to the glossy unreality of CGI, and "Graveyard Rats" is no exception. I'll admit the episode based on Henry Kuttner's 20th-century short story didn't fully capture my attention with the special effects rats, but once the Rat Queen entered the picture, I changed my whole tune about it. As Hewlett himself puts it in Tudum's behind-the-scenes featurette, the Rat Queen offers a "happy marriage" between the practical and digital worlds of horror filmmaking. 

Apparently, the puppet has a similarly awe-inspiring effect in person. "There's something about watching that on a monitor when everything's actually in the frame and it's happening in real-time, that is exhilarating for everybody," Natali says.

The "Cube" and "In the Tall Grass" filmmaker also says he even liked giving the puppets direction from behind the camera. "I had a great time directing the puppet — like the puppet is a character, it is an actor on that set," he told Newsweek. "It's kind of thrilling for me as a director to interact with a creature like that." It's certainly thrilling for viewers, too, even if we're just witnessing the gnashing of its teeth from the comfort of our own hopefully-rat-free homes.

Season 1 of Guillermo del Toro's "Cabinet of Curiosity" is now on Netflix. There's also another version of "Graveyard Rats" accessible via the show's trailer menu, for discerning Queen Rat fans who want to witness her glory in classic horror film black-and-white.