Movie Review: “Nightmare Alley” – The Biggest Scam On Earth
By Nicole Veneto
With Alley of nightmares, Guillermo del Toro once again proves to be an unprecedented cinematic visionary whose commitment to craftsmanship continues to surprise.
Alley of nightmares, directed by Guillermo del Toro, currently in theaters.
If there’s one general theme that ties the Guillermo del Toro films together, it’s that men – not vengeful ghosts, hell demons, or sexy fish deities who eat cats – are the real ones. monsters lurking in the shadows. It might be a cliché, but I can’t think of a better way to sum up this macabre mastermind’s thesis. Consider the tagline for his latest feature – “Man or Beast?” The message may be the same, but del Toro’s latest film, Alley of nightmares, is a departure from the rest of his work: it is his first to not present any of the supernatural or science-fiction elements on which a third of the “Three Amigos of Cinema” has built his career.
For its sequel to the 2017 Oscar-winning Cold War fairy tale The shape of water (aka the movie where a woman kisses the creature from the black lagoon, lest we all forget it), del Toro chose to re-adapt William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name for the screen. But the abandonment of the giant mech fights (Pacific Rim) and haunted Victorian mansions (Crimson woodpecker) in the seedy underworld of film noir isn’t as drastic a change for del Toro as one might think. In fact, film noir is a perfect fit for del Toro’s grotesque branding. With Alley of nightmares, del Toro once again proves to be an unprecedented cinematic visionary whose commitment to craftsmanship continues to amaze.
Black film lovers already know the plot of Alley of nightmares Edmund Goulding’s 1947 adaptation in which Tyrone Powell played Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a handsome vagabond turned carney whose mentalist talent brought him fame, fortune and ruin at the hands of a psychiatric femme fatale. Although del Toro is a fan of Goulding’s version, his take on Alley of nightmares comes close to the spirit of the novel, a property offered to him in 1992 by his frequent collaborator Ron Perlman (who plays Bruno the strong man). There are a few nods to Goulding’s film but overall del Toro’s Alley of nightmares is its own interpretation of the source material. And if you’re a del Toro fan like me, you know that means you’re in something far darker than Goulding’s take.
Del Toro wastes no time immersing us in the lives of the underprivileged of society at the dawn of World War II (notably, the title card and credit streak come at the very end): Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) lugged a dead body under the floor of his childhood home, set it on fire and hit the road. His travels take him to a carnival run by Clem Hoatley (the always great Willem Dafoe). With her good looks and talent for fluent conversation, Stanton quickly finds a niche for himself by helping “Madam” Zeena (Toni “I am your MOTHER!” Collette) and the psychic act of her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). In exchange, the duo teach him the coded word system behind their old mentalist spectacle in Vaudeville.
After Stan’s neglect causes a tragedy that complicates his relationship with Zeena, he goes off on his own as a mentalist, taking righteous “Electra Girl” Molly (Rooney Mara) from the carnival with him as his lover and pretty. assistant. A few years go by and their number two now regularly attracts gullible crowds of wealthy elites, finally putting Stan in contact with wealthy psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). Together, the two hatch a plan to defraud skeptical mogul Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins, returning from his Oscar-nominated role in Water shape). To say that things aren’t going the way Stan hoped would be an understatement, but let’s just say Ezra isn’t the only one getting ripped off.
One of del Toro’s greatest assets as a filmmaker is that he has a genuine love for everything he does, that he works with his own original ideas like Pan’s Labyrinth or an existing property like Blade. What defines del Toro’s style isn’t a sentimental attraction to the weird and the supernatural, but rather the way he delves into recurring concerns, like war and social stratification, in each of his films. Its purpose is often to explore what turns men into monsters, and Alley of nightmares continue this quest. Stan’s fall is tragic, but largely on his own initiative. Scamming for survival is one thing, but running a “scary spectacle” that casually indulges people’s grief for fame and fortune is a whole other matter altogether. Unlike the era adaptation of Goulding’s production code, del Toro offers Stan no romantic redemption, and the conclusion is all the better.
It is at the level of craftsmanship where Alley of nightmares really shines, from the grimy and grotesque carnival look of Clem Hoatley to the lavishly lit art deco interiors that Stanton walks in and out. Maybe the proceedings are a little too bright to be considered a true film noir, but del Toro has never been one to be realistic. He’s a maximalist in every sense of the word. What if suddenly there is a category for the best lighting at every big awards show this season, Alley of nightmares should sweep.
Every week or so I remember that del Toro doesn’t have a but of them Oscars for making an R-rated Studio Ghibli movie. That fact never fails to put me in a better mood. For me, he can’t do anything wrong, if only because I can’t think of another living director who is so passionately attached to the aesthetic of excess. Certainly, Alley of nightmares is not his best film: with a running time of almost two and a half hours, even I started to get nervous in my theater seat. Nonetheless, del Toro is the king of an artistic alley of its own. If you’re looking to see a movie starring Willem Dafoe without giving Marvel more of your money, then consider wandering around Alley of nightmares.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, focusing on Feminist Media Studies. His writing has been featured in MAY Feminism & Visual Culture, Cinematographic Questions Magazine, and Boston University Hoochie Reader. She is the co-host of the new Marvelous podcast, or the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi for weird and niche movie recommendations.