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  • Wendy Shreve

NIGHTMARE ALLEY: FILM NOIR THROUGH A MODERNIST LENS

Well, the first thing is that I love monsters, I identify with monsters.

--Guillermo del Toro


In 1947, Tyrone Power starred in a lesser-known film called Nightmare Alley about a street-wise wannabe carny who had his way with the ladies.

Decades later, the Oscar-winning Director Guillermo del Toro has remade the earlier film noir using visual elements, an impressive list of actors and dashes of horror that he's used before, in such films as the Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water (2017). No, this version of Nightmare Alley (2021) doesn't maintain the pace or suspense or that warrants the coveted award. Nonetheless, the atmosphere becomes hypnotic--even when squirming in one's seat.


When we first meet Stanton Carlisle (well-played by Bradley Cooper), he has come to the end of the bus route and his options in 1930s Buffalo, New York. Quickly, he discovers a small-time carnival in need of workers and sees his opportunity to rebuild his life.


Among the characters whom he meets, many labeled as "freaks," include: the owner, an amoral Willem Dafoe as Clem; a strong-man named Bruno (Ron Perlman) who's like a father-figure to Molly (Rooney Mara), a young woman with a talent for absorbing electricity; a vertically-challenged but proud man, The Major (Mark Povinelli). Then, later, Zeena the Seer and her husband Pete (Toni Collette and David Strathairn), among others, add to the shadowy mood. Stanton becomes enamored with Molly and Zeena's talent for conning the public. Both decisions carry devastating consequences.


Cate Blanchett, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen as well as Holt McCallanay contribute their own ghoulishness to the dark story when Stanton masters his talent for "seeing."


Writer/Director del Toro (and his co-writer Kim Morgan, both adapted the novel by William Lindsay Gresham) provide a noirish/creepy perspective on life during the Depression at the carny and further along in the city of Buffalo. They establish Stanton's questionable character from the beginning as well as Molly's naivete. However, the plot points drag, e.g., the slow reveal of Stanton's past, and, the writers provide little backstory for Molly.


What rises to the top of this borderline horror fable entails nuanced performances by the cast--a SAG award nomination for Best Ensemble should be a given. The brilliant shot selections by del Toro and his Director of Photography Dan Lausten who demonstrate their mastery of film technique. And, the eye-catching sets, costumes, visual effects by the talented crew all deserve commendation.


Twists and turns in this film, sometimes predictable, may have some viewers wondering if particular characters could be so easily deceived. The jolts, nevertheless, produced the desired effect: Nightmare Alley disturbed this critic's sleep.


Rated R for a too realistic portrayal of a chicken's demise (animal lovers be forewarned); blood and gore; depravity and profanity. Sensitive audiences might want to see the film during daylight hours.


Playing at select theaters everywhere. Locals: Entertainment Cinemas, South Dennis.



Earlier reviews not seen on this website (before May 20, 2021) are available on https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/wendy-shreve/movies or my previous blog site, featuringfilm.com



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