Aremake of Edmund Goulding’s searing 1947 film Nightmare Alley might have been a good fit for the Guillermo del Toro who made Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. In those gritty, poetic films, the director displayed a knack for humanism laced with a casual ruthlessness, and a concern with how trickery and illusion both reflected and intensified personal longing—interests that are pertinent to the story of Nightmare Alley. Over the years, though, del Toro has softened up considerably, developing an addiction to tropes for their own sake and to honeyed, moneyed cinematography that reflects little more than the fastidiousness of its own craftspeople. In the tradition of Crimson Peak and his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, del Toro’s remake of Nightmare Alley is less a living and breathing movie than a fossilized riff on the idea of a movie, particularly the American noir.

An early stylistic flourish in this remake telegraphs one of its significant and characteristic disappointments. For about 10 minutes, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) doesn’t speak, as he evades a tortured past and ingratiates himself with a seedy traveling carnival in the 1940s. This is a suitable entrance for a protagonist, building the audience’s anticipation for the emergence of his personality, that also establishes a pattern of passivity. The Stanton of the Goulding film, played by a brutally unsentimental Tyrone Power, entered the frames fully formed and eager, ready to learn the ropes of the carnival’s telepathy show and willing to jump in the pants of whomever enabled his ascension of the showbiz ladder. By contrast, Cooper’s Stanton is less certain and less sinister. Things just sort of happen to him.

Women, such as the clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette), seem to adopt Stanton, and when he abandons them, it’s all well and good. The romantic triangle between Zeena, Stanton, and a younger performer, Molly (Rooney Mara), has been significantly softened for this Nightmare Alley. Throughout the film, del Toro and co-screenwriter Kim Morgan continue to sand down any potential sexual, political edge that the material promises. Even the narcotic pleasure that Power’s Stanton took in grifting “rubes” is almost entirely scrubbed away here.


Given his fascination with show business and gadgets, del Toro stays with the carnival longer than Goulding, conjuring a pastiche of old circus tents and Ferris wheels and performers and oddities. Some of the sights are wonderful, such as the electric chair that Stanton rigs for Molly, and there’s an unnerving glimpse at the jarred fetuses that the carnival’s leader, Clem (Willem Dafoe), shows Stanton. But Dan Laustsen’s cinematography, with its soft, intensely bright colors and storybook compositions, sentimentalizes the carnival even during the film’s bleaker passages, interfering with the actual drama. But one very effective scene stands out during this stretch: of Clem explaining to Stanton how one creates a “geek,” the desperate addict who resembles a monster and bites the heads off chickens for spectators’ amusement.