Nightmare Alley is a neo-noir psychological thriller directed by Guillermo del Toro from a screenplay by del Toro and Kim Morgan, based on the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, being the second feature film adaptation of Gresham’s novel, following the 1947 version. The film is a co-production between Searchlight Pictures, TSG Entertainment, and Double Dare You Productions. Nightmare Alley is about a handsome, charming, and ambitious carnival worker with a mysterious past who takes big risks to boost his career. I watched Nightmare Alley because it was an Oscar nominee and discovered why it was nominated. I thought it was quite good.
**** SOME SPOILERS BELOW ****
In 1939, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) burns down his house after putting a dead body inside and takes a job as a carnival worker. When the carnival’s geek becomes ill, owner Clement “Clem” Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) enlists Stan to help him dispose of the man, and explains that he seeks out alcoholics, who are often men with troubled pasts, and lures them in with promises of a temporary job and gives them opium-laced alcohol. He uses their dependence to create a geek (someone exploited as an animal) for his carnival.
Stan works with the clairvoyant act “Madame Zeena” Krumbeinand (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband, Peter “Pete” Krumbeinand (David Strathairn). Zeena and Pete use cold reading and coded language, which Pete begins teaching to Stan. He and Zeena warn Stan not to use these skills to continue leading on patrons when it comes to the dead. Meanwhile, Stan becomes attracted to fellow performer Mary Margaret “Molly” Cahill (Rooney Mara) and approaches her with an idea for a two-person act away from the carnival. One night, Stan gives Pete the wrong bottle, and the old man dies from consuming wood alcohol. Stan and Molly leave the carnival.
Two years later, Stan has successfully reinvented himself as a psychic act for the wealthy elite of Buffalo, with Molly as his assistant, using Zeena and Pete’s techniques. During a performance, their act is interrupted by psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who attempts to expose the act, but Stan bests Ritter. He is later approached by the wealthy Judge Kimball (Peter MacNeill), who employed Ritter to test Stan. Now convinced of Stan’s abilities, he offers to pay him to allow him and his wife to communicate with their dead son. Despite Molly’s objections, Stan agrees.
Ritter invites Stan to her office. Knowing he is a con man, she is intrigued by his skill. Through recorded sessions with her clients, she has accumulated information about members of Buffalo’s social elite. She and Stan begin an affair and conspire to manipulate Kimball, with Ritter providing private information to Stan. She begins therapy sessions with Stan, who reveals his guilt over Pete’s death and his hatred of his alcoholic father, whom he killed in their home before joining the carnival.
Nightmare Alley takes a hard turn and Stan gets more than he ever bargained for. There is lots of killing and deceit. Stan comes up against people who are more experienced at the con game than he is and also more treacherous. This movie is bordering on a horror flick, as there are some pretty scary scenes in it. As of February 11, 2022, Nightmare Alley has grossed $11 million in the United States and Canada and $19 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $30 million. On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 79% of 307 critics’ reviews are positive, with an average rating of 7.4/10. The website’s consensus reads, “While it may not hit quite as hard as the original, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a modern noir thriller with a pleasantly pulpy spin.” You can watch Nightmare Alley on Hulu and HBO MAX — Check It Out!
[NIGHTMARE ALLEY is Oscar-nominated at the 94th Academy Awards for BEST: Picture, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Production Design — Totalling 4 Oscar Nominations]