Guillermo del Toro delivers a stunning noir melodrama with gruesomely entertaining performances and freakish twists. He proves that, despite the old song, there are still a few enterprises like showbusiness: psychoanalysis and crime. Del Toro takes us to a carnival of terror with his usual love of the fantastic and hallucinatory elements, as well as some body-horror spasms. Fortunately, it’s without the supernatural whimsy that occasionally threatens to swamp his films in twee.
Nightmare Alley is based on a 1946 novel by pulp writer William Lindsay Gresham, who had a great interest in the unsavory carnies, circuses, traveling shows, and magicians with their freakish glitter of the occult. (It’s interesting to note that after their divorce, Gresham’s ex-wife Joy Davidman moved to England and began dating CS Lewis.) Nightmare Alley was first released in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the lead role, and it will be Bradley Cooper taking on Stan Carlisle, a penniless guy with a violent history who must go into hiding for a while.
Stan visits a traveling carnival, where the most stomach-churning attraction is a haunted-house presentation that plunges visitors into an inferno of the Last Judgment, a revolting honeycomb of bulging eyes. Stan finds that the hatchet-faced individuals in charge can always use people like him to assist with difficult, backbreaking labor for little money and without asking any questions. Stan is a step above the usual hobos and losers; he’s a likely guy with a pleasant personality and an enquiring mind, who is intrigued by Zeena’s (Toni Collette) and Pete’s (David Strathairn) cheesy mind-reading show. Stan comprehends the art of the mind reader right away: to learn the secret verbal ciphers supplied to him by his partner, but also to employ his natural perceptive talents to figure out what sort of person he’s dealing with and picking up hints.
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