Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls. Non-binary friends. Step right up and witness a frosty new vision of suffering from the man, the maniac, the Master himself. It’s been exactly four years since Ringmaster Guillermo del Toro graced our screens with a new film. And as you stand in the audience, mid-December snow collecting on your shoulders, are you asking: was Nightmare Alley worth the wait?
Like many fans of the visionary director, I was slightly disappointed to learn that del Toro’s latest was taking a realist turn away from magic and fantasy. This Master of Horror has so rarely delivered us a true spook-house, and I so desperately wanted him to. While most of his work has hues of darkness and terror, very few of his films have taken a true plunge into the deep dark depths of horror. So, when he announced he was adapting an American Classic—one which had already been produced in the 1940s in film noir format—my eyes quickly glazed over with disinterest.
It doesn’t take long into the first act of Nightmare Alley for the uninitiated like myself to understand that a perfectly crafted neo-noir is nothing short of a horror film. There are ghoulish creatures stalking the narrow alleyways of this picture, they just happen to wear a perfectly applied red lip. Nightmare Alley, my good friend, is a scary movie. This follow-up to the comparably heartwarming The Shape Of Water holds and drags the exposure levels all the way to the right, leaving its story black as coal.
Speaking of story, the complexity of Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan’s screenplay is comparable to the mechanisms of an old German clock. There are so many moving pieces working in tandem towards an implicit common goal. Stanton (Bradley Cooper) dangles from the film’s precarious minute arm with equal parts desperation and confidence. Cooper plays a mysterious figure in the night who finds himself working for a second-rate carnival. His good looks, hard work and charm give him access to everything he needs to succeed, including a literal (and fairly conveniently located) how-to guide to mentalism.
Fast-forward a few years and he’s a successful big city showhorse, sparkling under the veneers of his card tricks and people-reading talents. But, when a man from nothing gets everything too quickly, ropes begin to fray. We are warned alongside Stanton in his earliest days of mentalism training that he must never start to believe in his own tricks. He must also avoid at all costs what Nightmare Alley refers to as a spook show: a performance in which one’s mentalism pushes the audience too far into the realms of belief. And it wouldn’t be much of a movie if Stanton didn’t do just that.
In terms of casting, Nightmare Alley pulls zero punches. This ensemble is so thoroughly stacked, it barely knows what to do with its riches. While Cooper and Cate Blanchett give two of the best performances of the year, other miracle workers like Toni Collette and Rooney Mara seem listless and bored without enough to do. This is a minor complaint for a spectacle of this calibre. The bleakness of the characters’ desperation and grief harmonize so tonally, so perfectly, it can be unbearable to watch. This is especially true in the intimate hypnosis scenes between Cooper and Blanchett.
Performances included, the horror of Nightmare Alley is varnished across every surface. There is no redemption to be found, no solace, no moments of comfort. Only the cold, endlessly brooding abyss of regret. It utilizes the snow and the cold to its advantage at every turn, reminding us why winter is both the most brutal and beautiful season. Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley will go down in history as a Christmas classic. Because Christmas, like all other touchstones in winter, is as sparkling as it is painful.
Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley’ will go down in history as a Christmas classic. Because Christmas, like all other touchstones in winter, is as sparkling as it is painful.