The Movie Waffler New to VOD - NIGHTMARE ALLEY | The Movie Waffler


nightmare alley review
A fake psychic teams up with a psychiatrist to pull off a con.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Toni Collette, David Strathairn

nightmare alley poster

Arguably the most defining component of 1940s Film Noir is the femme fatale, the woman who uses her seductive charms to ruin the lives of the male protagonist. One movie that notably bucked that trend was director Edmund Goulding's 1947 adaptation of Lindsay Gresham's novel Nightmare Alley. In the form of Tyrone Power, Goulding's film gave us a homme fatale who ruins the lives of no less than three women taken in by his charm.

Despite being made under the restrictions of the Hays Code, Goulding's film is surprisingly morally ambiguous, with Power's protagonist portrayed as a ruthless social climber from the off. With his remake, Guillermo del Toro has sanded the rough edges off the protagonist, played here by Bradley Cooper as a far more sympathetic figure than Power's version.

nightmare alley review

Cooper is Stan Carlisle, a drifter who takes up a job as a roustabout with a MidWest carnival. There he befriends Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her dipso hubby Pete (David Strathairn). Zeena and Pete run a fake psychic act based on secretly gathering information from the unsuspecting crowd, which Pete relays to his wife through a hidden glass floor. With Pete's alcoholism hindering his ability to perform his role, Zeena takes Stan under her wing and teaches him the secrets of the act. A couple of years later, assisted by his lover and fellow former carny Molly (Rooney Mara), Stan has become The Great Stanton, performing Zeena's act to wealthy urban audiences. Partnering with psychologist Lilith (Cate Blanchett), he plans to use his fake psychic powers to con a wealthy man (Richard Jenkins) out of a small fortune.

Nightmare Alley's opening act, set within the carnival, is mesmerising. Del Toro and his production design team build a tactile setting that's intoxicating. The Mexican auteur's affection for "freaks" and outsiders comes through as we get a real sense of the carny community and the unique world they inhabit. I could have gladly spent the entirety of the film's two and a half hours just soaking up this setting, but alas, once the action leaves the carnival behind it becomes a far less interesting movie.

nightmare alley review

When the meat of Nightmare Alley's plot kicks in, it's all too obvious that it's a remake of a movie made almost 80 years ago. It's a tired con-artist tale that feels exceptionally dated, and even if you haven't seen Goulding's original, it doesn't offer anything fresh. Del Toro's film is 40 minutes longer than Goulding's, yet it adds nothing extra. What distinguishes del Toro's version most is his propensity for over-the-top violence, which is so gooey when it arrives here that it takes you out of the movie with a level of gore that borders on the splatstick of Sam Raimi. Del Toro's edgelord tendencies also see him drop in some references to sexual abuse, which are dealt with in such a throwaway, unexamined manner that they feel like nothing more than a cheap attempt to shock.

Del Toro may think he has made a more edgy adaptation of Gresham's novel than Goulding, but aside from the gore that's really not the case. Goulding dared to give us an unlikeable protagonist, with Power's Stan portrayed as a ruthless social climber from the off. Cooper's Stan is a doe-eyed nice guy throughout the carny sequence, so it’s jarring when we cut to two years later and he's become the asshole Great Stanton.

nightmare alley review

What distinguishes Power and Cooper's protagonists most of all is their reaction to the carnival's "geek", a destitute drunk kept in a cage and fed live chickens. Power views the geek simply as a warning and is relieved that he has never had to stoop so low. Cooper is sympathetic to the geek, sharing his cigarettes with the poor wretch and wincing when others speak about him in a demeaning fashion. Cooper's Stan is so affable that it makes it difficult to swallow his later heel turn, which the film does nothing to earn.

Despite its lengthy running time and the addition of several pointless new scenes, del Toro's Nightmare Alley feels like it's missing a few scenes necessary to detail Stan's moral disintegration, while one particular reordering of events is akin to Greedo shooting first.

Nightmare Alley
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2022 movie reviews