‘Nightmare Alley’ review: horror histrionics in a gritty noir wonderland

Maestro of the macabre Guillermo del Toro gifts us this melodramatic masterpiece

Who says they don’t make ’em like they used to? Back in 1947, Edmund Goulding adapted William Lindsay Gresham’s sleazy noir novel Nightmare Alley into a lavish big-screen melodrama. 75 years later, and Guillermo del Toro has had a go too. Turning a weird, little fairground sideshow into a main stage, grand gala with an all-star cast, del Toro’s version is overwrought, overwritten and overlong. It’s also a masterpiece, and his best film for years.

Riding the waves of his Oscar win for 2017’s The Shape Of Water, del Toro takes the biggest budget he can and crams all of his passions into one movie – ending up with something that feels more like three. The first sees Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) drifting through a travelling carnival in the middle of the Depression, eventually finding work as a tout for ringmaster Clem (Willem Dafoe), protégé to clairvoyant act Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and admirer of the amazing electric-shock girl Molly (Rooney Mara).

Forever obsessed with oddballs and grotesques (see Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak), del Toro spends the first hour of Nightmare Alley completely in his element. Stan’s story meanders slowly through the circus, the director gradually immersing us in a beautifully detailed world filled with magic and romantic horror.

Nightmare Alley
Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley’ is among the director’s best films. CREDIT: Alamy

As Stan learns a few tricks from Zeena, and as his relationship builds with Molly, Nightmare Alley heads into its next act: a stately New York parlour drama that moves the action out of the circus and completely forgets Mara for about an hour. Tagging in Cate Blanchett instead, del Toro steeps the film in classic noir. That means plenty of femme fatale figures, high-stakes robberies and a millionaire mark with a shady past (Richard Jenkins).

Two hours in, the film makes another U-turn with a ballsy third act that ramps up the melodrama even further. Loud, emotional and very violent, del Toro’s final chapter is the baroque opera you never see coming – a classic Hollywood ending that gives Cooper, Mara and Blanchett much to sink their teeth into. It’s really something, and all three give their boldest, Oscar-baiting best.

And if the actors don’t win any awards, everyone else involved probably will. Lovingly and lavishly crafted to show off the very finest cinematography, lighting, costume and design work, Nightmare Alley swoons over details big and small to make a film that swallows you up in its world-building. Just as ugly and beautiful as any classic noir, del Toro’s dark, dazzling three-ring Hollywood circus proves the old-fashioned event film still has a lot of life left.

Details

  • Director: Guillermo del Toro
  • Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara
  • Release date: January 21 (in cinemas)
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