Nightmare Alley Is a Rare Miss for Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors of all time, so when I first heard about Nightmare Alley, I dropped everything and put it on my to-watch list (yes, I keep an actual list of movies I want to watch). Sure, he was pretty adamant that this would be a departure from the supernatural horror/fantasy style he’s generally known for, but I didn’t care. I’ll watch anything del Toro directs, so I knew I had to see this film no matter what style or genre it’s in.

Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, and David Strathairn, Nightmare Alley is a noir thriller that essentially details the rise and fall of a very talented con man named Stan Carlisle. When he takes a job as a carnie, he soon becomes enamored with the tricks the carnival uses to deceive its customers, so one of his fellow workers teaches him the secrets of mentalism, a set of techniques that make him appear to have psychic powers (a la Theresa Caputo and John Edward). He eventually uses this knowledge to build a very cushy lifestyle for himself, but that all comes crashing down when he meets Dr. Lilith Ritter, a slick psychologist who leads him down a deadly path of self-destruction.

For the first hour or so of Nightmare Alley, I was totally hooked. This part of the film is essentially Stan’s origin story, and it’s all about how he becomes a carnie and learns to be a mentalist. Pretty much everything about this first hour is amazing, so I could go on and on all day, but I’ll limit myself to two main things that really stood out to me.

First, we have the visuals. In typical del Toro style, this carnival is absolutely mesmerizing. Even though there’s nothing supernatural or fantastical about it, it’s so beautiful that it almost makes you feel like there is. The colors and the awesome designs of the different exhibits are an absolute joy to look at, so even if there were nothing else to like about this part, I still would’ve enjoyed it for the visuals alone.

Two men in a creepy haunted house

But thankfully, that’s not the only thing the first act of Nightmare Alley has going for it. The characters are also really captivating, and for my money, they’re the best thing about the movie. The performances are all really good, and the carnies are just fascinating. There’s a real artistry to the way they dupe and deceive the public, so as terrible as they are, I couldn’t help but find them super intriguing.

The only character I wasn’t enamored with in this part of the film was Stan. He’s just very bland, and at times he feels like little more than an excuse to spend time with the more interesting personalities. But he works well enough in that capacity, so as uninteresting as he is, I wasn’t really bothered by him.

Unfortunately though, the film takes a huge nosedive in quality once the second act hits. We leave the carnival and all its charming qualities behind, and instead we focus on Stan and his partner Molly. They’ve moved to the city, and they put on a phony psychic act that fools everybody except the astute Dr. Ritter.

If the first act of Nightmare Alley succeeds largely on the strength of its visuals and its characters, the second act fails for those same reasons. Let’s start with the visuals. They’re not bad, and if I’m being honest, I probably would’ve liked them a lot more if this was any other film, but they simply don’t hold a candle to the gorgeous, almost fairy tale-like carnival setting from the first hour. The big city and its luxuries are just boringly mundane in comparison, so even though it’s still pretty in its own right, it’s a big letdown after the amazing first act.

Stan with a blindfold on

Moving on to the characters, the biggest mistake this movie makes is leaving the carnival and focusing on Stan and Molly’s new life together. Like I said before, Stan was the only character I didn’t really like in the first act, and while he gets a bit better in the second act, the improvement is far from enough. He’s still relatively bland, and now that he’s no longer around the carnies, it’s a much bigger problem. Compounding the issue, Molly goes in the opposite direction and becomes a lot less interesting once she leaves the carnival. She’s basically relegated to the role of Stan’s partner and assistant in his psychic act, so she doesn’t really get to show what made her so great before.

There are a few new characters in this part of Nightmare Alley too, most notably Dr. Ritter, but they didn’t do much for me. They’re all played really well, and they have a few interesting quirks about them, but on the whole they’re pretty mundane compared to the carnies in the first act. Much like the visuals, I probably would’ve liked them a lot more if this had been any other movie, but in this particular film, they just feel like another big letdown.

Nightmare Alley does pick up a bit in the last half hour or so, but it’s way too little too late. There are a few legit horror scenes, and I even found one of them genuinely chilling, but beyond that handful of moments, this final part is still just more of the same. It never recaptures the magic of the movie’s first hour, so when the credits began to roll, I was sorely disappointed.

That being said, I do think there’s value in seeing this film. While the bad in it unfortunately outweighed the good for me, I’m still glad I saw it, and there’s a good chance you might feel that way too. It gets enough right that it’s far from a waste of time, so if you’re a big Guillermo del Toro fan and you’ve really been looking forward to Nightmare Alley, I’d say it’s worth checking out for yourself. However, if this movie didn’t interest you too much to begin with, then feel free to skip it. If the trailers didn’t hook you, you’re almost certainly not going to find any pleasant surprises in the film.

Nightmare Alley is out in theaters right now.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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