Guillermo del Toro is a master of horror. He dabbles in creatures and blood the way great painters do with oils and watercolors.
But del Toro is at his best when he strains horror through the lens of other genres. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is horror by way of fantasy, “Hellboy” mixed horror and superheroes and “The Shape of Water” gave us a horrific fairy tale.
In “Nightmare Alley,” del Toro brings his high-polished horror sensibilities to film noir, a genre you could argue is a barrage of horror from a moral and ethical perspective.
In fact, “Nightmare Alley” got the cinematic treatment back in the film noir heyday of 1947, but de Toro’s update is a little more brutal and a little uglier, juxtaposed with stunningly beautiful cinematography.
The plotline is arguably the weakest link of the whole production, but like all great noir, it features bad people making bad decisions and as a result, bad things happen.
Bradly Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle (they gave characters great names back in the 40s), a no-account drifter who finds work with a traveling carnival. At first he’s happy just for a meal and a bed, but then he starts to learn the ropes from the various carnies.
He’s intrigued the most by Zeena (Toni Collete) and Pete (David Stratharin) who perform a mentalism show where they “read minds” and “consort with spirits.” Stanton proves he has a knack for telling people what they want to hear and after learning the tricks of the trade from Zeena and Pete, he decides to leave the low-stakes scams of the carnival behind and polishes up his act for the nightclubs in the city.
Stanton takes the kindhearted Molly (Rooney Mara) with him as an assistant and starts to do quite well for himself. But after he meets psychologist Lilith Riter (Cate Blanchett in peak blond bombshell, femme fatale form) he begins eyeing bigger scores and starts to cross lines that even the carnies find unseemly.
The performances are fantastic across the board, but Cooper carries this movie as he takes Stanton from the gutters to the penthouse and back again. Also a shout out to Willem Defoe as the slimy creep who runs the freak show. His monologue about how he finds people willing to bite the heads off of chickens is about as chilling as it gets.
This is a hard ride and while it definitely has its flaws, del Toro’s willingness to stare unflinchingly at the ugly side of humanity and give it to us in the most beautiful form possible is an achievement that can be appreciated by anyone willing to look into those dark corners with him.
“Nightmare Alley” is rated R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language.