Last stop, end of the line, leaving behind a homestead burned to the ground to conceal the secrets buried within, with the screech of the train brakes Stanton Carlisle finds himself choosing between the neon lights of the café or the illuminated Ferris Wheel of the carnival. The barkers calling the crowds to the attractions, an additional twenty-five cents buys blood, the shocking image of the beastman eating a live chicken, and for a dollar he joins the carnies as a labourer as they roll out of town to the next stop.
A world of mud and shadows, of misdirection and deception, the funhouse mirrors are designed to disorient and confuse, but Carlisle learns the ropes and more, befriending clairvoyant Madame Zeena and her husband Pete, once a mentalist, and “electric girl” Molly, but he has ambition for the brighter lights of New York City, setting up himself as a prestige act with Molly as his assistant, mixing with the rich and powerful in nightclubs far from the gutters of nightmare alley.
Adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name, first filmed the following year by Edmund Goulding, Guillermo del Toro’s new version of Nightmare Alley stars Limitless’ Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, at first a blank canvas on which the others project their acts, absorbing all he sees, but a keen observer and fast learner that all around him are simple creatures of the same urges, needs and disappointments, cues which can be read and exploited.
Guided by Hereditary’s Toni Collette and The Expanse’s David Strathairn as Zeena and Pete Krumbein and looked down upon by Pacific Rim‘s Ron Perlman as carnival boss Bruno who sees himself as the protector of A Ghost Story‘s Rooney Mara as Molly Cahill, as psychologist Doctor Lilith Ritter Don’t Look Up‘s Cate Blanchett is a cold intellectual match to Carlisle’s emotional intuition, introducing him to her high-class patients and the neuroses which leave them vulnerable.
The torn canvas of the carnival flapping in the wind giving way to the wood panelled art deco lounges and apartments of the snowbound city, with a subdued palette Nightmare Alley is far from the overdesigned chiaroscuro of Crimson Peak or the menagerie of Hellboy, Del Toro restraining himself and allowing his ensemble to work with the broken characters, Carlisle the untouchable smooth operator unable to resist a challenge, Icarus flying ever closer to the sun.
No one more eager to believe than someone who has a vested interest in the outcome and no one more blind to failure than those who think they hold the winning hand, where on the midway he risked a beating in the city the stakes are higher, games of risk and temptation where backing down is not an option and the grim fall back to nightmare alley is the cost of failure yet preferable to the alternative.