When I first saw the teaser for Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley months ago, I instantly assumed it would make a perfect October release. Instead, Searchlight decided to go the same, unusual route as Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) with a holiday release.
Nightmare Alley isn’t exactly horror – it’s more of a neo-noir psychological thriller. But it does provoke the usual grim macabre vibe that del Toro is known for. And this is one of his most star-studded efforts with many attractive, previously Oscar-nominated faces. With a fan base already built around the original novel as well as Edmund Goulding’s 1947 classic screen interpretation, we now see if modern movie audiences are interested with a new spin on the familiar story.
Set around middle America from the late 1930s to early 1940s, Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a down-on-his-luck townie who catches the attention of Clem (Willem Dafoe), the owner of a seasonal, traveling carnival. Stan quickly goes from crewman to assistant of seer Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn), learning through the couple the skills and tricks to performing as a psychic. When he becomes a natural at the gimmick and convincing enough to fool the average person, Stan persuades pretty carnival performer Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) to leave with him for their own act. While working the high-end club circuit in Chicago, the pair come across Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a mysterious psychiatrist who hits it off with Stan.
Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Tim Blake Nelson and del Toro favorite Ron Perlman co-star, while Kim Morgan co-adapts the screenplay with GdT. After the critical success of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and box-office friendly Hellboy movies (2004-08), movie fans have pondered why it’s such a challenge for the auteur to strike celluloid gold again.
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While some of his later films have done well with fans, like Pacific Rim (2013) and Crimson Peak (2015), and his The Shape of Water (2017) did well during the 2018 awards season; something is always holding them back from being complete successes with both praise and profit. Crimson Peak was accused of being too atmospheric with not enough plot, while Pacific Rim lacked star appeal. In Nightmare Alley, I feel some more of the same divisive elements of Crimson, though a little more grounded. Cooper is solid as the protagonist center of every scene, and Mara is lovely and adorable on screen, helping the mood not be too bleak. Dafoe, Collette, Blanchett and the rest of the talented supporting cast are their usual effortless selves.
At 150 minutes, this Nightmare Alley is 40 minutes longer than Goulding’s original take, fleshes out the characters a bit more and takes advantage of the lack of censorship Goulding had to work around. Fans of the novel who were underwhelmed with the slightly forced optimistic shift in the 1947 film’s ending might be pleased to know the 2021 release follows more closely to Gresham’s intention. If you’re familiar with del Toro, you’ll know to expect some graphic, gory sequences in the film that are still relevant to the story. This, plus all the striking eye candy from the visual aesthetics and del Toro’s direction, makes Nightmare Alley what movie fans may be looking for from more serious, R-rated filmmaking this season.
Have you seen Nightmare Alley yet, or do you plan to? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!
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