Guillermo del Toro follows up his hugely-acclaimed, Oscar-winning 2017 hit Shape of Water with this gripping, dense, occasionally startlingly bleak remake of the 1947 original based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. Del Toro brings his singular visual style to this more languid new version; it’s a beautifully crafted piece, sometimes achingly ornate and stately, and although it eschews much of the director’s usual propensity for dark and disquieting horror, it fully embraces its film noir aesthetic, creating its own unique visual world full of outsiders, chancers, and moral oddities.
It's 1939 and Stanton 'Stan' Carlisle (Bradley Cooper – never better) drags a body wrapped in a carpet into a hole and burns down his family home. He makes his way to a local travelling carnival, becomes fascinated by its resident 'geek' and eventually finds himself working with plausible clairvoyant Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband. As Stan picks up Zeena’s 'skills' she warns him not to involve himself with “spook shows”, leading patrons on in matters concerning contacting the dead. Eventually Stan and fellow performer Molly (Rooney Mara) head for New York where he sets himself up as 'The Great Stanton', performing for the city’s wealthy (and gullible) urban elite. Here he attracts the attention of both psychologist Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) and the obscenely wealthy Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) and he sets off on a path that could lead to his downfall…
Nightmare Alley is resolutely not a horror film but it’s suffused with del Toro’s love of genre filmmaking and world-building. It’s a film of two halves; the carnival is gritty, slightly sleazy, and populated by extraordinary larger-than-life freaks (at this point, the film often evokes Tod Browning’s 1932 classic) and his New York is stylish, all art deco apartments and buildings and with a perpetually bleak and snowy landscape. But both halves of the film are utterly engrossing, occasionally eerie and unsettling despite the fact that the film is very much a psychological thriller and it’s only when the story’s narrative wheels are in motion that we realise that the film isn’t offering us any hero figures, anyone to root for, anyone doing the right thing. Stan has betrayed and abandoned his carnival saviours and now, in New York, he is ruthlessly exploiting the emotionally vulnerable. But del Toro still manages to make him a figure we are interested in and we believe in (perhaps we even like him?) – and even when we become more aware of his sinister past we are still on his side despite the fact we can see that he is, encouraged and exploited the magnetic Dr Ritter, taking the darkest of dark paths. There’s a beautiful and wholly satisfying circularity in the film’s stunning ending, a conclusion that delivers its own form of justice to a man corrupted by his own skewed sense of humanity.
Nightmare Alley won’t be for everyone and it might not be for fans of del Toro’s more traditional offerings. But it’s his most grounded film – quite possibly his best despite being slightly overlong – and with its strange, doomy, other-worldly sensibility, it’s absolutely a del Toro film for the world today. You won’t regret taking a trip to Nightmare Alley.