4.5 out of 5 stars

Guillermo del Toro has often dealt with the subject of monsters. Ghosts, ghouls, fish-men, demons, half-breed vampires, kaiju… just about every type of creature you could think of. But even with a large portion of the story set at an old-timey carnival, there are no mythological or fantastical creatures in Nightmare Alley. In fact, it’s del Toro’s first movie with no creatures to speak of—as any potential monsters are proven to be “normal” beneath their carnival facade–and yet, the humans in Nightmare Alley are more monstrous than anything this side of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). 

Adapted from the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham (a previous version from 1947 starred Tyrone Power), Nightmare Alley begins with Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) burning down his home before stumbling upon a travelling carnival, where circus owner Clement “Clem” Hoately (Willem Dafoe) gives him a job as a carny. Stan, on the run from something in his past, fits right in with the band of misfits, freaks, and weirdos, and quickly adapts to life among them.

While working at carnival, Stan meets a colourful array of characters, including clairvoyant Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette), her alcoholic partner and husband Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn), “electric girl” Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman), and funhouse operator Jack (Clifton Collins Jr.), among many others played by actors bringing a lived-in reality to these oddballs. 

The world as a whole is fully realised, with beautiful, awards-worthy set design work from Tamara Deverell and Shane Vieau. In general, the craft is impeccable, as has come to be expected from a del Toro picture. Dan Lausten shoots the film with a film noir look and Nathan Johnson conjures a haunting score. 

Following a few unfortunate events (or fortunate, depending on the viewpoint) I won’t spoil, Stan and Molly flee the carnival together to take their popular and increasingly complex act on the road. And, after a time jump, we see their act has become even more successful than it ever would’ve been at the carnival. The two are performing an intricately perfected show for the upper crust of society multiple nights a week.

Then, during one of their performances, they’re spotted (and challenged) by Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist with a special interest in the act (and Stan specifically). She invites Stan to her office, where she presents a get-rich-quick scheme to him… and Stan, always thinking of ways to make more money and climb the social ladder, accepts almost immediately. But this being a film noir homage, Ritter’s plan isn’t as straightforward as it seems…

Blanchett is having the time of her life as Ritter, playing her as a loving homage to classic femme fatales in the vein of Rita Hayworth or Lauren Bacall. She brings a jolt of energy to the film with a liveliness that should bring back the attention of even the watchers with the most ardent complaints of the movie being too long. 

I’ve not read the original novel, but it seems del Toro stuck with the original ending the 1947 film changed, most likely because the Hays Code would’ve deemed it inappropriate. And the new film is all the more stronger for it. 

The movie circles back to a speech from Dafoe’s Clem earlier in the film, wherein he explains to Stan what a “geek” is and how he continues filling such a lowly, looked-down-upon position. The story is genuinely unsettling, which sets up the gut-punch of an ending pitch perfectly. The story ends on a complete downer of a note after a stunning final sequence of events. I haven’t seen a major studio film with this dark of an ending in some time, save for maybe the fact-based Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). It’s the best part of the movie, but one’s mileage may vary on such an ugly conclusion. 

While it may not hit as hard as the film noir classics of the Old Hollywood era, Nightmare Alley still packs a powerful punch despite being a big, glossy studio movie—which is becoming an increasingly rare sight, and perhaps more so now after its dismal box office performance in the US. Hopefully, the movie will find an audience elsewhere, because del Toro’s follow-up to is Academy Award-winning The Shape of Water (2017) is worth your time. 


frame rated divider - searchlight pictures

Cast & Crew

director: Guillermo del Toro.
writers: Guillermo del Toro & Kim Morgan (based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham).
starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen & David Strathairn.