James Jay Edwards reviews Nightmare Alley, a neo-noir psychological thriller film directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Bradley Cooper. (Searchlight Pictures)
Visionary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water, Crimson Peak) has already sat in the producer’s chair this year for the folklore-based creature feature Antlers. But we didn’t think he’d kick back and just produce, did we? Nope. He’s now put his director’s hat back on for Nightmare Alley.
(Nightmare Alley, theatrical release poster, courtesy 20th Century Studios)
Nightmare Alley is about a troubled transient named Stanton Carlisle (A Star is Born’s Bradley Cooper) who, while on the run, hooks up with a carnival run by the shifty Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe from The Lighthouse). He fits in nicely with the misfits of the show, and even learns the art/grift of mentalism from Zeena the Seer (Hereditary’s Toni Collette). He also falls in love with Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara from A Ghost Story), the “Electric Girl,” and convinces her to strike out on her own with him and take their show to the next level. With the help of a psychiatrist named Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett from Blue Jasmine), the couple finds success in their new endeavor, but they also learn that success has a price.
Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan (The Forbidden Room) based their screenplay for Nightmare Alley on the novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. This is the second time that Gresham’s book has been adapted (the first was back in 1947), so it’s essentially a remake. And it does stick pretty closely to the source, which makes it much more of a reality-based movie than fans are used to getting from GdT. Audiences are used to getting movies like Antlers.
(Nightmare Alley, photos by Kerry Hayes, courtesy 20th Century Studios)
That doesn’t mean there aren’t monsters in Nightmare Alley. It just means that it’s not as fantastical as movies like Hellboy or Pan’s Labyrinth. Nightmare Alley is a “man is the real monster” kind of a movie. It’s a dark neo-noir with a despicable anti-hero who interacts and interfaces with similar despicable individuals. It’s actually feels more like a super-sized episode of Tales from the Crypt than anything else, with Bradley Cooper playing the knave who carries the story while also setting himself up for some big comeuppance.
And it’s dark. We’re not just talking shadows and light here. Nightmare Alley tells a grim story that is packed with betrayal, murder, and mayhem. And each additional scene seems to bring a new surprise to the party. It’s like a Coen Brothers movie seen through the eyes of classic Hammer Horror.
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Guillermo del Toro puts together a terrific cast to bring his vision to screen. Cooper is charismatic enough to hold the viewer’s attention, but slimy enough to never get them fully on his side. Mara plays the innocence to his guilt, sort of like his conscience—if he had one. Blanchett is electric as Cooper’s willing accomplice. Dafoe and Collette, along with Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy), Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water), Mary Steenburgen (Book Club), and David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), round out the capable supporting cast.
(Nightmare Alley, photo by Kerry Hayes, courtesy 20th Century Studios)
Nightmare Alley is Guillermo del Toro proving that he doesn’t need monsters and ghosts to make a terrific movie. All he needs is an engaging story, some good casting choices, and his inimitable visual style, and the rest takes care of itself. Del Toro is not just a master of the fantastical, he’s a master of the macabre, too.
Nightmare Alley is in theaters now.
Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.